“The full heat of the ripening season was upon us like a millstone, crushing the juice out of everyone.”
This description of a summer day in 1,000 BCE in a newly united Israel could easily be applied to Hanoi’s recent, oppressive sweltering heat.
One of our readers spent much of those juice-crushing months in cool places having historical adventures with Geraldine Brooks, the author of the above statement.
She began with Brooks’ 2015 novel The Secret Chord which recounts the life of the biblical King David through the eyes of his personal prophet Natan. In his middle age, David sets Natan the task of recording his life, words, songs and deeds from sheep herder to supreme King with no air brushing of warts or other blemishes.
As Brooks points out, David is the first man in literature whose story was told from early childhood to extreme old age. However, outside the Bible, there is little trace of him. Brooks is convinced that such a man must have actually existed “for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero.”
It’s a ripping, hard-to-put-down yarn full of full-blooded and very gory battles and skirmishes. It recounts David’s blood-spattered life from his childhood years as a lion killing sheep herder; through his adolescent encounter with Goliath; his enmity with King Shaul (throughout the novel the author uses personal and place names in their transliteration from the Hebrew of the Tanakh); into and out of his love affairs with his several wives and one beloved male; his anointing as the rightful king of Israel by Shmuel- Samuel; the foundation of Jerusalem or Ir David; until his death at 70, when he appoints his youngest son Schlomo-Solomon to be his heir after condoning the murders of other young males who may have had a claim to the throne.
Reputedly David was a talented harpist and the novel’s title is drawn from that instrument.
After a couple of days and late nights riveted to this novel our reader decided to anoint her summer by reading the other five Brooks novels. She raced through the Pulitzer Prize-winning March and decided that Year of Wonders was her personal favourite. As I write this, she’s into Brooks’ non-fiction output and enjoying Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.
A Different David
Another reader half-heartedly started Roger Williams’ novel Lunch with Elizabeth David and found herself so intrigued that she followed up immediately with nosedives into David’s several cookbooks which, after World War Two, saved the British from a diet of bland, grey stodge, by introducing them to the delights of French and Mediterranean cuisine. David was an intriguing person who eventually ended up living as a hermit in her kitchen. She insisted that she know the exact provenance of any foodstuffs that she used in her cooking.
However, in Williams’ novel we only meet Elizabeth three brief times. The first is in 1940 in a field near Antibes where, as a young woman, she is having a picnic lunch with a raconteur and learning about the delights of fresh herbs, with the advancing German army only days away.
The second is on Capri in 1951 where the ailing raconteur invites the now well-known food researcher to a lunch with several luminaries of the day including novelist Graham Greene. The last is in the 1990s, not long before her death, when she invites a young female food caterer to stay for a simple meal in her crowded basement refuge.
The first half of the novel revolves around the southern European travels of real-life essayist, travel writer, novelist and raconteur, Norman Douglas from 1910 to 1951. Throughout the author evokes a sunny Mediterranean atmosphere fragrant with rosemary and olive oil. Douglas, however, was a paedophile who encouraged working-class, adolescent males to travel with him as ‘nephews’ and much of the absorbing novel is told through the eyes of one of them, Eric Walton, who journeys with him through Calabria, pre-World War I.
The question at the novel’s centre asks if Douglas was “a monster, the paedophile of the century” or was he as Eric states, a great and talented man who led him into a “warm and sensuous world of adventure and light?” Douglas did spend a brief time in jail because of his dalliances with adolescents.
Douglas inscribed a novel to David with his motto: “Always do as you please and send everybody to hell, and take the consequences.”
Eric becomes a game warden in Tanganyika, marries a German and has to give his house boys a vacation when Douglas visits in his greying years.
The shorter, second half of the novel is set in London in the latter part of the last century and is related through the point of view of the young caterer who is a David enthusiast and is married to an Italian fishmonger who is implied to be Douglas’ grandson. And as convoluted as all that sounds, the section is full of savoury prose.
Truong is an avid reader and runs Bookworm (44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi). For more information on go to bookwormhanoi.com