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Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks uncovers the ‘holy and broken’ King David in latest novel

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

To touch the subject matter of King David, “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22), is a daunting prospect.

Geraldine Brooks is up to the task. The journalist and Pulitzer-prize winning fiction author, who has written about everything from the hidden world of Islamic women to the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest surviving Jewish illuminated texts.

In “The Secret Chord,” her latest novel, she details the well-known episodes of David from the Bible, but with a fresh perspective in that of Nathan, who served as a counselor to the famed ruler of Israel for most of his life. While many know David from such popular biblical stories such as “David and Goliath,” Brooks made it her charge to flesh out the more controversial and “mercurial” side of the character and historical figure.

"He really embodies the best and worst characteristics that we might find in our own heart."

  “He is so complex; he really embodies the best and worst characteristics that we might find in our own heart,” Brooks told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. “There’s something incredibly powerful about the poetry he wrote, the psalms we still turn to in order to express grief and when we’re lost and seeking. We know he’s a wonderful musician. We can identify with his love for his kids even when they do terrible wrongs.

“And yet, he’s also quite brutal: he’s a murderer and adulterer. I think it’s that humanness of him. I love that Leonard Cohen song that talks about ‘the holy and the broken Hallelujah.’ I think David is both holy and broken.”

That song, in fact, holds the key to the title of Brook’s book.  “The secret chord is the music that only David knew how to play that was said to be particularly pleasing to God,” Brooks said. You may recognize the tune:


Brooks used the book as an opportunity to explore themes which she touched on in her journalism as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in the Middle East. She uses the character of Bathsheba, for example, to explore the lives of women in those times and lend a more empathetic hand to the story of the woman bathing on the rooftop.

Credit Courtesy Viking

“I didn’t want people to come to the book with the preconception that they knew these guys—that they were the old bearded drawings that they see in Sunday school,” said Brooks. “I wanted it to seem as strange as it actually is. We are talking about second Iron Age individuals. I wanted to put a little distance and say, ‘Wait! You don’t know this guy as well as you think you do.’”

Related Event

What: Maryville Talks Books and Left Bank Books Present Geraldine Brooks
When: Thursday, Oct. 29 at 7:00 p.m.
Where:Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road, St. Louis, MO 
More information

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.  

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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