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Book Report: The Secret Chord

I was pleased to see that Geraldine Brooks was named to the Order of Australia. It inspired me to celebrate Australia Day by picking up her Nine Parts of Desire, a non-fiction book that grew out of her reporting. Sadly, I didn’t actually get to that part of the library that employs me on the day, and while I still plan to read the thing, it wouldn’t be an Australia Day observance and so it can wait.

Meanwhile, our public library had her latest novel on the display shelf, and I grabbed it. This is The Secret Chord, a novel retelling the life of King David. This sort of thing is my meat and drink, of course, and while it’s certainly possible to do it badly, Ms. Brooks does a magnificent job. It’s an enthralling story, and she combines the narrative storytelling (I know the incidents, of course, which not every reader will) with evocative writing about the land and its people. An excellent read.

I have developed a probably-unfortunate habit of reading reviews of books within a few days after finishing them. I do this particularly with the sorts of books that get reviewed in the major newspapers and such—I do sometimes seek out blog reviews of YASF, too, but if I finish a book of the award-winning hifalutin literary type, I go to seek out what the Important People had to say about it. I do this whether I liked the book particularly or not; I am not so much looking for verification that the book was in fact as good as I thought, or to be outraged by the stupidity of Critics, for that matter. I suppose I’m just looking for someone to talk with about the book, as I have allowed this blog to go essentially dormant and the thought of joining some other social network fills me with weariness.

I am often surprised, though, at what the critics (or those I read) pull out to dwell on in the space they have or what I noticed that they left out. In this case, I was surprised that none of them mentioned Mary Renault. The Secret Chord read to me very much like a Mary Renault book, not only as a historical novel but with something of Ms. Renault’s style and emphasis. It’s not accurate to say that this is the book Mary Renault would have written, if she had chosen to write about David instead of Alexander, but it’s difficult for me to think about this book without comparing it to her books. Ms. Renault would not have dwelt so furiously on the rape of Tamar, but then, like Ms. Brooks she would have not let the reader forget it or forgive it, either. There’s a moment in The Mask of Apollo when Niko the Tragedian (through whose eyes we see the story of Dion of Syracuse) responds to some great diplomatic contretemps—if I’m remembering the line correctly, his friend exclaims could there be a greater insult? and Niko finds himself thinking of a flute girl who had been raped. She left the violence off-the-page, though; Ms. Brooks is too angry to do that.

I think that Ms. Renault might well have chosen to tell us the King’s story through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, though, as Ms. Brooks does, and made that character as conflicted in his loyalties as Ms. Brooks does so beautifully in this book. Alas, my one major complaint might well also have happened in a Mary Renault version: the character of Solomon is too good, too hopeful, without the foreshadowing of the character flaws that will set his story into such chaos and disaster. It’s a sort of blindness on Nathan’s part, but it’s also a sort of blindness on Ms. Brooks’ses part, I think. It’s too bad, because Solomon is a rich and terrible story, too. My minor complaint is also Renault-esque, as it happens: they both transliterate most, but not all, the names of places and people, in a way I find distracting and irritating. Thus, Nathan and Solomon are Natan and Shlomo; Hebron is Hevron; the Palestinians/Philistines are Plishtim. David is David, but I suspected I was supposed to be mentally pronouncing it dah-veed. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,