Book Review: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)

Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks is a master storyteller, whose obsession with her subject matter gleams from the pages of her latest novel, The Secret Chord, like the golden Ark of the Covenant. Perhaps it is her previous life as a war correspondent, but she has a way of observing setting and walking in the shoes of her characters that I swear she must have been there with David, listening to him compose his mourning song for Yonatan, or watching Bathsheva ladle scented water over her body on the rooftop.

Geraldine Brooks ticket

Image copyright Caroline Barron, 2015.

I saw Brooks at an Auckland Writers Festival event at the Maidment Theatre last month and was captivated by her immense love of research, her vast knowledge of varied subjects, and her ability to recreate a world. In The Secret Chord, as in Caleb’s Crossing (2011) [read my review here] and in Years of Wonder (2001) [which I am part way through—yes I’m having a Brooks-fest], she takes an historic time, layers it with real-life characters and imagines the rest: their thoughts, their dialogue, their every day. Of course this is a tried and true narrative method (my article on ‘Creating Fictional Worlds’ appears in the Summer 2015 issue of NZ Author magazine), but some people—Brooks—do it a hell of a lot better than others. I’ll give an example passage shortly. But first, to the structure.

The Secret Chord, and thus David’s story, is told in third person point of view through the eyes of Natan, David’s courtier and prophet. To get around the tricky aspects of telling one man’s story through another man’s eyes Brooks employs an obvious structural technique: David commissions Natan to write his (David’s) life story. And as any good biographer does, Natan interviews those who know David best. And so it is through the eyes of others we know David. For the most part this works well, but I agree with Steve Walker who reviewed the book in the Sunday Star Times  13 December 2015—this technique prevents the reader from entering into David’s psyche, to understand why he does the (often barbaric, sometimes loving, occasionally misguided) things he does.

But Walker was harsh—choosing which structure is going to best serve the story is the most difficult decision a novelist has to make, and Brooks chose the best option. For example, telling the same story in first person through David’s eyes would have thrown up other difficulties—not least the unreliability of David telling his own story.

Where Brooks’ writing sings like a harmonic echoing from the strings of a harp (sorry—awful) is in her descriptions within her chosen point of view. I love this passage and her ability to weave the physical environment Natan sees to memories of his father:

I sat in the buttery light of the late evening, lingering over my wine. Outside, finches and larks tousled the trees, singing their frantic hymn to the waning day…I poured more wine, letting the light find fire in the liquid as it streamed from the jar into the cup. It was good wine, from the king’s own store. My father would have valued the skill of the winemaker. I thought of our vineyards, the green vines scribbling across the steep russet hills that sprang up from the flat white shore. I could recall every crevice and cave, every rough tree trunk, every dusty leaf, the sudden pulses of fresh springwater through tumbles of stone. I felt a stab of longing for the apricot-coloured earth of those vineyards, for my father… (p121)

I give The Secret Chord 4.5 stars.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (Little, Brown / 2015) RRP NZ$37.99

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