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Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord: A Novel (New York: Viking, 2015), 352pp.

Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord: A Novel (New York: Viking, 2015), 352pp.Book review by Brad Keister

Geraldine Brooks, an Australian-born journalist, has in recent years turned her efforts toward historical novels, one of which (March) won the Pulitzer Prize. The premise of The Secret Chord is that King David has asked the prophet Nathan to chronicle his life, with full access to all of the primary characters, including the prominent women (such permissions could only come from the king). It appears that David is worried that he will be forgotten by subsequent generations, and so he has resolved to have his story told — both the beautiful and the ugly. The book’s title and an underlying narrative borrow from the first lines of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, which refers to David’s musical gifts — for his personal use, and ultimately for his people.

There is scant historical information about David apart from the biblical texts, so Brooks weaves in a context that fleshes out life during that time: life in a king’s court, the gruesome reality of hand-to-hand combat, and the prevailing view of women, to name a few examples. David is described as unwelcome and unwanted by his father Jesse, which leads to his almost not being identified as Israel’s future leader. There is also Jesse’s subsequent resentment of David, and David’s perpetual quest for affirmation. Women were subjected to abuse, assaults, and broken promises, almost on a whim. The dysfunction of David’s family reads like a Godfather script. 

Brooks portrays David as having to depend upon Nathan to assess his own standing with God. Nathan, in turn, does not have any special insight on a continuing basis, but rather has compelling visions at critical junctures.

All of this certainly employs a 21st-century lens, but it offers a plausible insight into the full reality of the key players beyond their simply existing as vehicles to deliver a theological perspective. This is a difficult but welcome task in trying to understanding how we are alike, and how we differ, from our counterparts three thousand years ago.

Intro lyrics of Hallelujah:

Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah


Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah


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