The Secret Book of Kings

Yochi Bran­des; Yardenne Greenspan, trans.
  • Review
By – September 1, 2016

The Secret Book of Kings show­cas­es author Yochi Brandes’s unique cre­ativ­i­ty. The nar­ra­tor at the begin­ning of the nov­el is a child whose fam­i­ly belongs to one of the less pow­er­ful tribes of Israel. The Bible sto­ries he learns are not exact­ly those we tell today; instead Bran­des chal­lenges the usu­al Bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives by mak­ing small tweaks to these sto­ries and slip­ping them casu­al­ly into the char­ac­ters’ con­ver­sa­tions and the back­ground expla­na­tions. Eas­i­ly over­looked, these twists raise an intrigu­ing world of pos­si­bil­i­ty. What might have result­ed if the sto­ries hand­ed down across the gen­er­a­tions were dif­fer­ent in fun­da­men­tal ele­ments? In order to notice the changes Bran­des makes and appre­ci­ate the full pow­er of her inven­tive­ness, read­ers must know key bib­li­cal sto­ries very well and read carefully.

By com­par­i­son, the plot — about the lead­er­ship over the king­dom of Israel — is inter­est­ing and engag­ing but not incred­i­ble. There are two nar­ra­tives that even­tu­al­ly meet: the child grows up to become a sol­dier and even­tu­al­ly king, and the princess schemes in hopes of usurp­ing the cur­rent rulers and regain­ing her family’s pow­er over the throne. There are many char­ac­ters along the way, and most of them are intro­duced in one role and lat­er revealed to be some­one else. At its best the sto­ry is a sur­pris­ing and unpre­dictable page-turn­er. But there is much palace-based gos­sip that detracts from the momen­tum even as it pro­vides nec­es­sary background.

Greenspan’s trans­la­tion is anoth­er high­light. Clear­ly the words have been cho­sen with care so as to facil­i­tate good rhythm and flow­ing dia­log. The lan­guage cap­tures the emo­tion in the sto­ry as well — espe­cial­ly the despair that aris­es from famil­ial dis­putes and mil­i­tary vio­lence, both of which are recur­ring themes. The trans­la­tion also appears to pick up intan­gi­ble ele­ments from the orig­i­nal Hebrew. This enrich­es the expe­ri­ence of read­ing a pow­er­ful sto­ry filled with com­plex characters.

This nov­el will be of par­tic­u­lar note to those inter­est­ed in an imag­i­na­tive look at the ancient king­doms of Israel. Giv­en the atten­tion-grab­bing char­ac­ters and the stim­u­lat­ing sto­ry about a key part of the peo­ple of Israel’s his­to­ry, it is easy to see why The Secret Book of Kings was a best­seller in Israel. Eng­lish-lan­guage read­ers are for­tu­nate to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to read this book and enjoy Brandes’s intri­cate tale.

Relat­ed Content:

Rachel Sara Rosen­thal is an envi­ron­men­tal attor­ney in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Orig­i­nal­ly from Greens­boro, North Car­oli­na, she grad­u­at­ed from Duke Uni­ver­si­ty in 2003 and Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law in 2006.

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