First published in Hebrew as Kings III of Israel in Israel by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Divir Publishing House in 2008. English language translation by Yardenne Greenspan published by St Martin's Press in America in August 2016.
This is my first book for the See Orange Feminist February Challenge.
Where to buy this book:
Buy from independent booksellers via Abebooks
Buy the ebook from Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk
Buy the hardback from Speedyhen
Buy the hardback from The Book Depository
How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Stories are deadlier than swords. Swords kill only those who stand before them, stories decide who will live and die in generations to come.
Shelomoam, a young man from the tribe of Ephraim, has grown up in the shadow of dark secrets. He wonders why his father is deathly afraid of the King’s soldiers and why his mother has lied about the identities of those closest to him. Shelomoam is determined to unearth his mysterious past, never imagining where his quest will ultimately lead him.
The Secret Book of Kings upends conventions of biblical novels, engaging with the canonized stories of the founding of the Kingdom of Israel and turning them on their heads. Presented for the first time are the heretofore unknown stories of the House of Saul and of the northern Kingdom of Israel, stories that were artfully concealed by the House of David and the scribes of the southern Kingdom of Judah.
Yochi Brandes, one of Israel’s all-time bestselling novelists, enlists her unique background in both academic Jewish scholarship and traditional religious commentaries to read the Bible in an utterly new way. In this book, a major publishing phenomenon in Israel and one of the bestselling novels in the history of the country, she uncovers vibrant characters, especially women, buried deep within the scriptures, and asks the loaded question: to what extent can we really know our past when history is written by the victors?
Two themes recur throughout The Secret Book Of Kings: 'Stories are deadlier than swords' and 'Our nation has a short memory'. Brandes' exploration of biblical history from the vanquished House's point of view cleverly illustrates both of these thought-provoking statements in the context of a gripping historical novel. I can't say how many biblical conventions are upended, as claimed in the synopsis, because I only recognised two moments - the David and Goliath encounter which is certainly upended here and, from Handel's Coronation Anthem, 'Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet' who 'an-oin-ted So-lo-mon Kiiiiing'. (Love that music!) Readers familiar with the Bible and the early Kings of Israel will no doubt enjoy greater depth of meaning and narrative from already being familiar with characters and events. Personally I did struggle with keeping track of everyone in the extensive supporting cast, especially their tribes and ancestral lineage, but easily understood enough of this to enjoy Shelomoam's quest.
Brandes covers decades of wars, secrets and political intrigues so there isn't much space for mundane details of how people lived. However I liked that her central characters, Shelomoam himself and King Saul's daughter, Princess Michal, are complex believable people. They live in times of incredible social upheaval and I found their respective coping strategies fascinating. I was also surprised at the strength and influence of the female characters. Although at a disadvantage in the strongly patriarchal society, none of these women are giddily fainting wallflowers!
I enjoyed reading The Secret Book Of Kings purely as a historical novel, but do feel that I have gained greater knowledge and understanding of this early period of biblical history - presumably from an upside-down point of view compared with tradition though! Our view of the past is obviously always guided by the stories left behind and, until the present era, human nature generally means victor's tales are all that remains for future generations to mull over. It would be interesting to discover how people familiar with traditional interpretations view this novel.
Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Yochi Brandes / Historical fiction / Books from Israel