Geraldine Brooks’ “The Secret Chord”

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“He showed me that marks etched on a stone or inked upon a roll of hide could make a man live again, long after he had died.”

Accomplished historical fiction writer Geraldine Brooks has once again achieved critical acclaim for her latest work. Long listed for the Bailey’s Prize, “The Secret Chord” is her most far-reaching novel yet, hearkening back to biblical times to tell the story of David, slayer of Goliath and musical King of the Israelites. Brooks’ skill at sculpting historical figures into complex, sympathetic, and flawed humans shines. The duality in David’s nature – the gentle, charismatic musician and the brutal, rampaging warrior – is carefully wrought and poetically described in the voice of Brooks’ narrator, the prophet Natan.

“I had heard that singer’s voice fill a hall, and bring tears to the cheeks of seasoned warriors. But I had heard it also on the battlefield, fierce and wild, carrying over the clash of arms and the cries of the dying.”

“He had both elements in his nature, both the coarse and the refined. He could be a predator at noonday and a poet by dusk. And he exercised uncommon tact with his men, meeting them where they stood, rather than demanding that they always be the ones accommodating themselves. I have learned over time that this quality is rare in any man, even more so in a leader.”

Brooks’ story isn’t just a recasting of a biblical hero often reduced to cliched allusions. It is a critical exploration into leadership, one that resonates millennia later in our world of charismatic leaders, egomaniacal brutality, and unending war. Whether her topic is eerily timely or simply timeless, I can’t be sure. Either way, Natan’s pointed observations and subtle critiques are poignant and force the reader to pause.

“You cannot harmonize in song or play instruments together without listening one to the other, sensing when to be loud and when soft, when to take the lead and when to yield it. I think that few grasp the connection between waging war and making music, but in the long evenings, when the firelight flickered on the cave walls and the voices joined and rose with his, I learned the unity between the two.”

If the way in which Natan discovers the symbiotic relationship between music and leadership is striking, then the insight of Shlomo (more commonly known to English speakers as Solomon) is breathtaking and, to me, heartbreaking.

“‘A leader who inspires people can get them to give more than they know they have. But there are few such leaders. But why only on the battlefield? …All wars end, and then that which was broken must be remade. It’s a waste, I think. All our best men strive to be captains and generals, because their leaders reward those skills. But perhaps there are other skills, other men, who can think of ways not to fight. Perhaps a real leader would find those men, and train them…'”

Would that we heeded such words of wisdom!

In Geraldine Brooks’ other works, her stories feature women, regardless of historical era, who are exceptionally strong-willed, courageous, and fearless. I wonder if the author struggled with her latest subject, taking on such a male-dominated story set in an extraordinarily misogynistic time. Many of the wives of David are shown to be sage, savvy, and strong, but their counsel is sought rarely and their consent almost never.

“‘It is important that you know. I want you to set it down: Mikhail was in love with David. Nobody ever writes that about a woman. It’s always the man whose love is thought worthy of recording. Have you noticed that? In all the chronicles, they state it so. Well, you write down that it was I. I was the one who loved.'”

Though Brooks faithfully weaves unequivocal barbs and subversive acts by and on behalf of women throughout the novel, on balance the story is still one of oppression and omission.  Women are property, items for political trade and objects for sexual conquest and careless discard. The occasional “speaking part” for a strong female is equally welcome and frustrating for its rarity. That this imbalance is the fault of history and not the author does little to soothe my feminist hackles.

On the whole, Geraldine Brooks has proven again that she is uncannily adept at embodying the time and tenor of her subject, no matter how distant in time or space. Her ability to employ the rhythm and tone of the Torah while massaging the language in a way that makes it palatable and engaging for the modern reader is worthy of all the accolades it receives. However, I was often struck by just how frequently Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles”, winner of the Women’s Prize in 2012, came to mind as I read “The Secret Chord”. When stripped down, the heroes – their triumphs and their flaws – are remarkably similar, as are the ways both stories are deliberately unfurled. With such a masterful parallel so recently having won the prize, I wonder if Brooks’ work may be diminished by comparison.

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