Three kings, a mad princess, and their times reimagined in dazzling, expansive novel

The Secret Book of Kings, by Yochi Brandes. Translated by Yardenne Greenspan. St. Martin’s. 416 pages. Hardcover $26.99.

First published in Hebrew in 2008, this is a book about the power of stories. It recognizes the truth that the stories we inherit are most often the stories of those who prevailed. We must understand that this aphorism includes the stories of the Jewish Bible. In retelling and reimagining these stories – the kingships of Saul, David, and Solomon – Brandes includes many scenes in which scribes are at work – or thought to be at work – writing and rewriting history. To the victors go the spoils of war – including have the final, authoritative word. That is, until the lines of power are rearranged and new versions of what happened replace older ones. 

But the older ones remain concealed only until they are needed again. And stories may be written, and purposely be concealed, for later revelation.

“Stories are deadlier than swords. Swords can only harm those standing right in front of them, while stories determine who will live and who will die in future generations.”

An official web site for the book provides resources to foster complex reader involvement.  Readers can discover “how the Bible’s stories as told in the novel are deeply rooted in the Biblical text and also read the texts differently from the perspective of the Biblical author(s), as well as the perspectives of traditional interpreters. The resources presented here are meant to aid interested readers in learning more about traditional and modern perspectives on the Bible, as well as to guide readers in comparing the Biblical text with the book’s text.”

Two voices dominate this sprawling epic. One is the voice of Shelomoam, a conflicted young man who grows up living in fear and enveloped by secrets. His true identity is a secret, and the one he is cloaked in is a fabrication meant to protect him. The early story of Shelomoam, mainly provided in his own words, launches the novel. It is followed by one section of the story of Michal, daughter of King Saul and abandoned queen of King David. Once again, the main character is the narrator. She is soon identified as the Mad Princess, and we will discover why.

The novel continues to alternate perspectives and locations with a suspenseful building of story-telling rhythms.

The cast of character is enormous, and the names of many are both strange to English ears and yet so much like other names that it’s sometimes hard to keep all the character straight. However, the situations and the emotions they produce are always vivid and clear.

Yochi Brandes

The twists and turns of the plot spin around opposites: loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice, modesty and arrogance, palaces and temples, frankness and cunning, passion and coldness, tribe and nation, royal splendor and simple family life.

Though the author’s scholarly preparation, fueled by her imagination, allows her to recreate the lands, the politics, the genealogies, and the material and spiritual culture of these turbulent times with great particularity, she strives for and attains a welcome sense of universality.

Anyone who read this book with the concluding stages of the recent U. S. political campaigns in mind will find many parallels in the campaigns of the ancient candidates for kingship and their subordinates. Brandes makes a point of having her characters reflect on the stories they know, seeing parallels in their own lives to the stories about the patriarch generations, especially  the rivalries within the families. Parallels are also drawn to portions of the Moses saga.

In other words, the more things change the more they remain the same.

Yochi Brandes is to be commended for how brilliantly she brings her characters to life. Her penetration into the longings, confusions, deliberations, and joyful moments of these characters us remarkable. Many undergo changes that are convincingly motivated though not predictable. Almost all the major figures are complex individuals whom the readers come to know intimately. King David is one particularly complex character, but there are so many.

With the online supplementary material, this is a great choice for book groups.

Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. Earning her BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies, Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years. She is the author of novels and essays on biblical women-all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including The Secret Book of Kings, and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva’s Orchard. She lives outside of Tel Aviv.

This review appeared in the January 2017 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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