In the “Afterword” of Geraldine Brooks’s book The Secret Chord–the title is drawn from Leonard Cohen’s song, published, I think, in 1984 or so–she states: “David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age. Some scholars have called this biography the oldest piece of history writing, predating Herodotus by at least half a millennium. Outside of the pages of the Bible, however, David has left little trace. A single engraving uncovered at Tel Dan mentions his house. Some buildings of the Second Iron Age period might have been associated with a leader of his stature. But I tend to agree with Duff Cooper, who concluded that David must have actually existed, for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.” (p. 350)
Brooks also mentions that it was her sons who inspired her to write the book as well, the younger by his energy in scouring the Biblical countryside with her where she was exploring, the elder by taking up the harp and later playing a version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for his bar mitzvah. This inspiration led her to her studies of other Biblical scholars’ works on David, his dynasty, his reign, the uniting of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the eventual passing of the united kingdom to Solomon in his youth, at which point the book ends, on an after all triumphal note, and after the recounting of much suffering.
When I say that there is much suffering in the book, and ugliness, it is also because there is a sense of much truth in it, whatever one decides about the actual details and whether or not they are accurate. It is poetic truth, even in the moments when the description is of warriors being disemboweled, the visionary Natan (Nathan, David’s prophet) in the grips of an inspired fit, a fratricide or the incestuous rape which called it forth, the relations amongst David and his many wives and concubines, David’s passionate and dangerous–because traitorous to King Shaul (Saul)–relationship with Yonatan (Jonathan) and many other realities which we imagine that we have curbed, modernized, controlled, or accepted today, but which from all we know of the news from the papers, are still realities that we often prefer not to see. This picture of a kingship calls them back into vivid relief.
As to David’s being a “flawed hero,” there is no question that he is so at least in this retelling; the matter is dealt with very craftily and well by having different people narrate their experiences of him to Natan, who is charged by David to gather the truth about him into one account. Some of the people concerned have kind thoughts, some have bitter and angry thoughts, there are even some humorous, bawdy, and mixed narrations. All of this helps paint a picture of a fascinatingly complex, savage, cunning, and adept ruler, who yet according to this account fears his God and listens when his prophet speaks. And by the end of the book, there is retribution more than enough to go around.
The book is exceedingly well-balanced, well-written, and totally gripping, no matter what you thought you knew about David before. Even if you are not inclined to be interested in Biblical accounts, the book stands on its own as a work of extremely accomplished fictionalized biography, and is not at all “churchy.” In fact, I suspect the churchy would tend to avoid it like the plague. To round matters off, let me say that this is easily the best book I have read in probably the last 5-10 years, if memory serves me correctly, and I used to read rather a lot. Why not give it a try? It is available on some library websites, and should be easily accessible in bookstores, though it is a few years old. Though the research Brooks did is considerable, and is listed in the back with the rest of the “Afterword,” you needn’t fear being intimidated by too much bookishness or academic verbiage, if that should be your aversion: the book, the subject, and the story are all immensely accessible. Shadowoperator