The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Secret Chord

In 2012, Geraldine Brook’s wrote a fascinating book Caleb’s Crossing (review here), about Bethia, the fictional daughter of a Minister and two Wôpanâak tribe members, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and Joel Iacoombs, all inhabitants of the 200sqkm island of Noepe, (Martha’s Vineyard). Caleb and Joe were the first Native Americans to attend Harvard College, their story so fascinating, it left this reader wanting to know more about them.

So I was looking forward to Geraldine Brook’s next book, for when she inhabits certain characters, her stories can really carry you away while teaching you something of the historical era they inhabit. And here it is, her next book:

The Secret Chord is an imagined narrative of the biblical figure King David, told mostly from the perspective of a shepherd boy whose father David has had murdered in front of the lad; one who becomes his near constant companion, the prophet Natan. He can foresee the future though isn’t always able to share what he knows will unfold. For this he has few friends, no loves and is a dispassionate observer of events.

‘I have had a great length of days, and been many things. A reluctant warrior. A servant, a counselor. Sometimes, perhaps, his friend. And this, also, have I been: a hollow reed through which the breath of truth sounded its discordant notes.’

David is the youngest of a large family of brothers, rejected by his father and siblings over a perceived betrayal that occurs between his parents. His father can’t bear the sight of him and banishes him to the hills where he is easier to forget. He is recalled some years later when his Uncle Shaul, calls for all his nephews to appear before him, wishing to identify and anoint the one he believes will become the future King. It is a turning point for young David, as will be his encounter with the giant Goliath.


David Playing the Harp, 1670 Jan de Bray

Sadly, his early years of solitude don’t prevent him from becoming another seeker of power and prowess through murder, mayhem and the sublimation of women.

Lover of Yonatan, David marries his sister Michal, both children of Shaul. Killed in battle,  the father intervenes and marries his daughter off to another man, David is not yet King, he is exiled for a while during this period, he seems to forget Michal, who eventually falls in love with the man forced upon her and will have children with him, only to be summoned by David when he becomes King, as if she would then welcome him. He is unforgiving when he discovers that is not the case.

There will be many more wives and children, and little tolerance for criticism of his protege, whose lives run unchecked by discipline or ressect. David also errs when he observes the wife of his loyal warrior Uriah the Hittite, Batsheva, and calls for her, thus provoking a prophecy the King uttered himself in response to a tale Natan told him of a man who suffered a grave injustice, trying to illustrate how wrong he had been in his behaviour. Upon hearing the story of a rich man who stole a poor man’s favourite ewe to slaughter and serve to a guest, David shouts:

‘That man deserves to die! Tell me his name! I’ll see to it that he pays for that lamb four times over, because he was greedy and had no pity.’

‘His name?’ I said quietly. ‘You really want to know who he is, that greedy, pitiless man? That man who has everything?’

‘As the Name lives, so do.’

‘That man is you.’

Statue King David by Nicolas Cordier

Statue King David by Nicolas Cordier

And so the four deathly, dishonourable events that follow are seen in that context of retribution for what happened to Uriah. A daughter raped and dishonoured by her older brother, a revenge killing one brother against the other, a banishment and betrayal by the son leading to his death. The sole light in all this darkness being the son born to Batsheva named Shlomo who after a vision of the boy’s promising future, one he keeps to himself, comes under Natan’s protectorate, inheriting none of the destructive qualities of his

I have to admit, I almost put this down after reaching halfway, the first half was so full of battles, murder, horror, the callousness of men who seek power, who kill or appropriate anything and everything they want or which stands in their way, ruthlessly dispatching the innocent, acquiring wives and concubines like commodities, and without the balance that can be created in a narrative that observes things from the perspective of the main character or one of his great loves.

The second half is redeemed through the character of Shlomo, the youngest son, who shares none of the attributes of his siblings or father and to spend time on his story provides the reader a little reprieve from the rest.

Of course there are novels based on history and legend full of violence, however I believe this novel failed for me due to the choice of narrative perspective. It may have been a missed opportunity not to have shown us the perspective from one of the characters who had something to gain or lose, a character who was emotionally invested in an outcome, male or female – a perspective the reader might try to comprehend or empathise with. Rather, we must observe from the outside, through a character who abandoned his own grieving mother to follow the murderer of his father, one who will develop no close relationships, save David. Instead of being enraptured by it, I was just constantly sickened by the history and behaviours of people.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb & Joel, Harvard College woodblock print by Annie Bissett

Geraldine Brooks delves into a period of history around 1665 combining fictional characters with the intriguing and real-life characters of two Wôpanâak tribe members, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk and Joel Iacoombs, inhabitants of the 200sqkm island of Noepe, (Martha’s Vineyard) located south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts and the first Native Americans to attend Harvard College.

Thank you to Annie Bisset for allowing me to use her wonderful woodblock print of Caleb and Joel, click to learn more about these real life characters and to see Annie’s excellent artwork.

Bethia is the daughter of a Minister who has ambitions to convert the Wôpanâak people to Christianity. Though they live on the same island, it is not deemed proper that they mingle and Bethia believes she has sinned gravely when she develops a friendship with Cheeshahteaumauk, nicknamed Chuppi ‘the one who stands separate’ the young son of a Chieftain whom she names Caleb. He calls her ‘Storm Eyes’.

“to the extent that my spirit was roiled, so his seemed calm.”

Bethia and Caleb are like yin and yang, they contrast and yet complement each other, light within dark, dark within light, they attract and recoil from each other, moving through life with their separate belief systems, alien and yet understanding, their spirits connected in ways the intellect struggles to comprehend. But while he is able to suspend his beliefs to better understand the ways of the settler’s, something deemed necessary for their survival, she cannot do the same, she observes and feels something, but her fear of it convinces her it must be devil’s work. Caleb is elusive, we perceive him rather than know him, which makes him mysterious, left to the imagination to fill in the gaps. He appears not to have been corrupted and is “all seeing”, at least I imagine him as such.

The book is split into three periods in Bethia’s life, moments when she picked up the pen and looking back recorded certain events in her life, the first period when she was an adolescent on the island records her transformation from carefree girl within a stable family environment to young adult when a change in family fortune requires her to be indentured as a housemaid in a Cambridge school so her brother can continue his education.

I enjoyed this part the most, it touched both her joy and terror of discovering the new, her close relationship with nature, Caleb and the island and her desire to know more while fighting her puritan instinct to punish herself for those thoughts and stifle their continual unwelcome presence. It is the beginning of her repressed crush on the young Chieftan’s son, who appears comfortable in himself with his knowledge and harbours none of her fears of taking that knowledge to the next level.

Thus we find ourselves in the second part, in Cambridge where Bethia’s brother Makepeace and the two boys Caleb and Joel spend a preparatory year before sitting the exam that will allow them entry into Harvard. It was something of a shock in reading to suddenly be thrown into Cambridge, just as it must have been for the protagonist herself, I wasn’t ready to leave the island and wanted to dwell more on the years that were not recounted in the text, but alas, it was not I steering this ship and so reluctantly I let go of that disappointment to await Bethia’s fate. Bethia desires intellectual knowledge or at least to be in the proximity of it, so despite her lot, she is content to be within an educational institution and this attraction forms the basis of future decisions she will make.

An enjoyable read, although the cut off between the three sections always left me wondering and craving a little more for what happened next, never quite reaching fulfillment. The introduction of the characters of Caleb and Joel left this reader wanting more and I was disappointed that we don’t learn more of their experience, which I understand would have required great steps in the imagination, as little details of their time at Harvard are actually known or recorded. But ever thankful to have been enlightened on the achievements of these two young men and their place in the story of America and another great read from Geraldine Brooks.