‘This matter would need to be covered up, and swiftly,” writes the prophet Natan, in Geraldine Brooks’s new novel, The Secret Chord. “It was the kind of thing that corrodes, like a drop of lye fallen upon linen. You don’t see the effect at first, but in time the fibers weaken and fray, a hole widens, and the garment is spoiled. Only if the drop is washed away directly can the damage be gainsaid.”
When it comes to describing the damage wrought by sin, especially on the part of political leaders, Brooks has a master’s touch. And The Secret Chord gives her plenty of opportunity to exercise that skill, since her focus is on the life and reign of the Biblical King David. In Natan’s mouth, Brooks deftly describes the potentially cancerous effect of the monarch’s seduction of Batsheva, the wife of Uriah, one of his military officers.
King David’s prophet Natan is the novel’s narrator, and it is his lifelong attachment to the Israelites’ monarch that propels the story forward. Natan followed David through years of exile, when he was leading what was basically a band of outlaws running from King Saul rather than reigning over a joint kingdom, and through David’s succession to the throne. Natan is not only God’s voice for David but the novel’s conscience, as David’s actions and behavior are judged through Natan’s moral authority. Brooks makes sure we know her view of the importance of this relationship when she has one of David’s wives, Maacah, define Natan’s importance as “the king’s conscience.”
When David takes up with Batsheva, Natan is upset. “David has his appetites, as I have said,” Natan explains, “but this kind of incontinent behavior was most unlike him. He did not abuse his power in this way. His bonds with his men were bonds of real love, of friendship and devotion.” Natan is a shrewd judge of what will strengthen soldiers’ bonds to their military chief. “He exercised uncommon tact with his men, meeting them where they stood, rather than demanding that they always be the ones accommodating themselves,” Natan observes of David’s previous connection to his soldiers. And this is why his taking up with Uriah’s wife is so shocking: It endangers these bonds.
But Natan is also a political animal, who works to bring God’s dictated choice for David’s heir — Shlomo — to the throne. Most writers, historians, and political scientists have understandably focused on the story of the king, but Brooks seeks to understand the ruler’s relationship to his divine authority as it was conveyed through a human agent: the prophet.
Brooks often can’t help but see the story through modern eyes, though. So while she imagines prophecy as something much like being taken over by a spirit speaking through the human vessel, thus conveying certainty, when Natan is left to his own devices, he second-guesses himself. Brooks’s point seems to be that while the outcome of the prophet’s message may be a foregone conclusion, it may look less than perfect as it comes about. That is as it should be — we are talking about human beings here — but it’s difficult for writers to square this circle of certainty in our age of skepticism and doubt, and Brooks is no exception.
What’s especially compelling about her choice of perspective on this story is her thoughts about the role of the prophet. Brooks puts into the mouths of her characters many questions she must be asking herself about the role the prophet plays in relation to political rulers. Mikhal, one of David’s wives and the daughter of the previous monarch, asks Natan about another prophet, Shmuel: “Why did Shmuel choose my father [Saul] to be king? How can a prophet make so vast a blunder? Can you tell me that, Natan? Doesn’t it make you question yourself? When you speak in that way, so hard, so certain. Shmuel, the great seer. And yet he could not foresee my father’s madness.” Political leaders, even ones chosen by God, are ultimately felled, and in Saul’s case the succession fight was especially bloody; his daughter is wondering how the person who was so certain that the leader was chosen can feel about the disastrous end of his reign.
The theme of succession reappears toward the end of the book, when it is David’s time as king that is ending and a complicated and bloody fight for his replacement is under way. Natan has seen that Batsheva’s son Shlomo will replace David, but he cannot speak of it, because — in Brooks’s telling — God has prevented the prophet from delivering his prophecy. And even as he teaches and helps to groom Shlomo, he endures the son’s anguished waiting for his father’s love and attention. At one point, Shlomo complains to the prophet about his father’s relations with his other sons. “It’s as if he doesn’t see me,” Shlomo whines.
He never sends for me anymore. Avshalom’s the only one he wants. Adoniyah is angry about it. His pride is hurt, and he lets it show. Which is stupid, I think. The king doesn’t like it and it just makes Avshalom look better by comparison. Me, it’s not about pride. I just miss talking to my father. There’s so much to learn from him. But Avshalom doesn’t seem to see that. He doesn’t even pretend to be interested in anything David has to say. It’s all about flattery with him, and empty words.
Brooks wants us to think of these Biblical characters as people, while allowing for a whole host of assumptions that modern readers might find difficult, such as the connection of God to the selection of political rulers. In the moments of the novel dealing with family strife and the failings, especially sexual ones, of our leaders, she has hit on a very modern, indeed immediate, issue.
– Abby W. Schachter, the author of No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government Out of Parenting, blogs at CaptainMommy.com.