Brooks began her career as a reporter. I have followed her work since “Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women,” a pre-911 book from her time as a correspondent in the Middle East, when she was blocked from access to male-only power circles and intrigued by the lives of women beneath the veil. I still envy the vision of her reported memoir, “Foreign Correspondence.” As a child in working class Sydney, Australia, Brooks collected pen pals from around the world; as an adult, she tracked down several to find out where their lives had led. (I, too, had a small-town childhood, a box of letters carrying exotic stamps and a wonder about the greater world that led to a career of bylines. I just didn’t see it as the raw material for a greater story.) Brooks carried her reporting instincts and skills to all five of her novels, including the Pulitzer-winning “March,” the story of the Civil War told through the experience of the absent father of “Little Women.” All her books are based on deep research, which she molds into what-if stories. She revives history in ways that make us wonder enough to revisit it. That, perhaps, make it endure. (A friend, after reading “Secret Chord,” said it inspired him to read the Old Testament.)
The other magic of the sentence (really two fragments and two sentences that, together, make meaning) is the music in the rhythm and pacing. Brief as it is, it builds and builds, then drops into that last note of refrain. Good journalistic writing – whether building to investigative findings, unraveling a complicated issue to make sense of it or inviting readers into an emotion or experience – does the same. It sings a story.
(PS: I had Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” playing in my head through much of “Secret Chord.” The k.d. lang version. And by my lights, Brooks’ best novel is “People of the Book.”)