a rich, elegant retelling of the rise and reign of King David, with friends, foes, motives, and passions
As Alana Newhouse writes in the New York Times, this novel, “a thundering, gritty, emotionally devastating reconsideration of the story of King David — makes a masterful case for the generative power of retelling.” Her review is short and excellent. You might want to skip mine and just go read hers.
I grew up on the stories of the Bible, including the stories of David: David and Goliath (wait, there were giants?), David and Bathsheba (don’t look, man!), Saul with his thousands versus David with his tens of thousands (not your fault, but a totally unfortunate bit of PR). But like most Bible stories and other traditional stories, the details are pretty sparse. Why did David kill so many innocents in his outlaw years, seemingly unnecessarily? Why didn’t David punish his son Amnon after he raped his half-sister Tamar? Why was Bethseba bathing on that roof? Why did most of David’s sons seem to turn out so badly?
Brooks fills in the scriptural narrative with motives, passions, and details, as told through the eyes of Nathan the Seer. Having a seer as your narrator, incidentally, while not technically granting you an “omniscient third-person narrator,” comes pretty close. In the course of the book, Nathan interviews those who knew David in early life, he recounts what he himself has seen, and he drops into visions of far-off, often terrible events. The prose is beautiful. For example, when describing the relationship between three brothers who have fought beside David for many years, she writes, “To say these three were close does not do the matter justice. They had shared more than a womb. They were knit together by the rind of scar tissue that comes after long, bloody service.”
As a consumer of legendary tales, I really value Brooks’s effort to demonstrate one way that the sparse tales could be filled in with real people rather than the paper cut-outs so often encountered in scripture and elsewhere. What was the relationship between David and Abigail like? and Michal? and what about that friendship with Jonathan? Of course, one could fill in the story in different ways. But by detailing one way, Brooks opens up our imagines to how we might think about the characters in other legendary narratives.
A recurring theme deals with the ends justifying the means, with David repeatedly killing or taking other action for what he views as a greater good. “It was necessary,” he tells Nathan over and over again. This refrain both sickens the seer and — ultimately, sometimes — makes sense to him.
I listened to the audiobook, which was well narrated by Paul Boehmer.
Note: This book has violence, sex, and sexual violence. Just like the Bible. Oh, and it has strong language. Not to be all judgy, but I hope that’s not what pushes you over the edge.