Geraldine Brooks’ new novel about King David, The Secret Chord (the title of which alludes to the Leonard Cohen song), is fine and displays her skill at polishing details that give an extra sparkle to the narrative. She also, cleverly, puts the narrative into the voice of David’s prophet Nathan, which personalises and makes for a particular perspective, avoiding the book becoming one of those novelistic rewrites of the Bible.
Her competency at the historical novel is assured, but it is a type of historical novel that aims for a level of verisimilitude, something that is somewhat hard to judge hundreds or thousands of years on. She has defended her dialogue previously and has assured readers that this is how people talked back then, but the story of David presents a larger problem in that, obviously, David did not speak English. And even if we could somehow translate his Hebrew literally, we are not of the same mindset, so to speak, so a historical novel that dates from so long ago will suffer from a sense of unreality. And of course a novel is an imagining and a reconstruction, but sometimes the desire to make the inhabitants of a former time accessible to us grates against a striving for authenticity.
An alternative may be to exaggerate and draw attention to the fact that we will find it difficult to inhabit the minds of peoples separated by the centuries. Sjon, the Icelandic novelist who collaborated with Bjork on Dancer in the Dark and like her goes under a monosyllabic moniker, does this in his brilliant but taxing fever-dream of a novel, From the Mouth of the Whale.
The story concerns an ageing mystical healer and exorcist who has been exiled to an island for sorcery, who is dragged to court in Denmark and then returned to his island after befriending a man of science and discussing the wonders of the natural world (a brief interlude in a dark series of events). This mediocre attempt to outline the plot is merely to indicate that the plot is only the briefest of frameworks for Sjon to pile on all manner of detail and manic musings.
As far as narrative voice goes, there is a South American-style overload to the language, but the way the sentences dip and roll conjures a sense of historical displacement appropriate for the book’s medieval setting. And typically for a world which was more fluid when it came to conceptualising nature and the supernatural the narrator mixes keen observation of the natural world, which is not at arm’s length as it is for many of us today, with outlandish, folklore-ish statements that for us are plainly unscientific. The melding of the two recalls philosopher Charles Taylor’s description of the medieval world as an ‘enchanted’ one. Sjon adds inventive chapter introductions that are like entries from some medieval bestiary or encyclopaedia, and have their visual equivalent in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts or medieval maps. It’s not that they don’t have their own logic. At one point Jonas the narrator and protagonist lists how certain bushes grow lambs and how geese grow from barnacles, which seems outlandish until one thinks of how pearls come from shellfish and how flies are found in amber. And the narrator’s way of thinking about these things is complicit with the way medieval taxonomies work – the lumping of what we would think of as disparate elements, such as minerals and emotions, into a particular category.
This is just merely one aspect. Sjon understands that his narrator would be steeped in the Bible and this would affect the language and imagery with which the narrator apprehends the world. Then there are the resonances with Biblical stories – Jonas is both Jonah and St John on Patmos receiving visions. These visions blend with reality so that there is an apocalyptic fury about most of the events described in the novel.
One might not be able to say there is a sense of historical reality here, but the intensity and luminosity of the language seems appropriate for the setting, and, perhaps paradoxically, makes the reconstruction of this time so different to ours feel right.