I am not someone who has a religious faith – I would usually go as far as to describe myself as an atheist, but am quite happy for those who do have a faith to believe what they wish. I was, however, like many people brought up in a nominally Christian culture – R.E. lessons at school, hymns and carols when appropriate, family church weddings – and so knew the outline of the story of King David. You know, shepherding, giant-slaying with a sling, playing the harp and misbehaving with Bathsheba, having a Royal City. That stuff.
Geraldine Brooks’ The Secret Chord takes the familiar biblical (and, like many bible tales, at least partly historical) narrative and turns it into a surprisingly modern novel. The names are archaic – it took me a while to realise that the Plishtim were the Philistines – but this doesn’t really matter because the characters and their psychologies are bang up to date. The way David indulges his sons, giving them an overwhelming sense of entitlement, to make up for his neglect as a boy seems very plausible. They way they repay him, with levels of contempt and violence which could be classed as biblical, remind us that these were very different times indeed.
The whole book is pretty earthy in its descriptions of battles, sex and general depravity. Which is obviously a little different from the stories told in Sunday School. But you are certainly gripped by the characters and by the events which unfold (even if you do know, broadly, what is going to happen). The author is following in a tradition of interpretations of the story of David which includes works by Dryden, Joseph Heller and Allan Massie and, in my view combines the poetry, history and modern sensibilities of that unlikely group.