Over the years I’ve read a lot of Biblical historical fiction; having written in that genre myself I appreciate finding a writer who can bring these ancient stories to life in a way that is both respectful of the original source material but also transcends the “devotional literature” genre by not only writing well, but asking tough questions about beloved characters that the Scripture sometimes leaves unanswered. There’s a lot of bad fiction written about Biblical characters, but there’s also great fiction. The best work in that genre somehow manages to convey the almost alien strangeness of life in the ancient world, while somehow also making these ancient people real flesh-and-blood humans whose struggles we care deeply about even if we can’t entirely relate to them. Of course, this is what all good historical fiction should do, but it can be more difficult in the case of Biblical characters because those of us who have grown up reading the Bible and attending church or synagogue have seen these characters through a veneer of holiness that sometimes makes it harder to imagine them as real-life people.
All this intro is to say that Jewish writer Geraldine Brooks has written one of the best novels about a Biblical character that I’ve read in a long time. It’s as gripping as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, the gold standard in this genre, while taking fewer liberties with the original story — probably because in the story of King David, there’s so much great original material there already that there’s less need for invention. (For those keeping score at home who only like Biblical fiction if it sticks strictly to the Bible, I’ll let you know: there are only two major deviations, that I saw, in The Secret Chord. The whole census/plague/threshing floor story is left out of the narrative, and the friendship between David and Jonathan definitely does have a sexual element which many readers feel is hinted at, but it certainly by no means explicit, in the Biblical account).
The narrator of The Secret Chord is the prophet Nathan (or rather Natan, as Brooks uses the spelling of proper names that is closer to the Hebrew — Shmuel/Shaul/Shlomo for Samuel/Saul/Solomon, for example). Natan is associated with David from the days when the future king is a fugitive leading a band of outlaws on the run from King Saul, throughout his rise to power and the heartbreaking disintegration of the royal family in the later days of his reign as David’s sons turn against him and each other. David is already a larger-than-life character and the best example of the fact that the Hebrew Bible has no problem portraying the flawed, human side of its heroes. Brooks’s story humanizes the hero and places him in the context of the world in which he lived, fought and loved. This was a great read and I thoroughly recommend it to those who like to explore the stories of the ancient world through fiction.