Book Review for “Signed, Mata Hari” by Yannick Murphy.
Margaretha Zelle, aka Mata Hari, was a woman who lived a strange and disjointed life, and died in disgrace, executed for her spying during the first World War. This historical, biographical novel describes her complex history from her early life in the Netherlands, to her loveless marriage and move to the Dutch East Indies, to her scandalous career in Paris as a dancer, to her arrest and execution for espionage. Told in first person as a type of memoir, Murphy mixes the exotic and the mundane into a hybrid of the myth the name invokes to this day, and what may have been the reality of a woman caught up in a long string of very unfortunate circumstance.
I borrowed a copy of this book from a new work colleague of mine who previously worked as a literary agent, and in fact was Murphy’s agent for this novel. Now, that alone should have been an indication of the quality of this book, but I never take anything for granted. Even so, although I was expecting something good, I was surprised at how very special this book ended up being, which is not going to make it easy for me to review, to be honest.
Let’s start with the writing here, because I think that’s what most everyone will notice. Once again, I find that book with this type of lyrical prose that teeters on the edge of poetry, is ultimately compelling. Murphy’s style here is best described as liquid, where the waters that run over you can feel either comforting or uncomfortable. Yet even in the harsher sections, there’s a smoothness here that seems to wear away at any sharp edges. There’s also a level of warmth to the prose that reflects the tropical weather during Mata Hari’s life in Java, but which somehow also infuses her time in Paris, and her unpleasant stay in jail. Another way to put it might be that Murphy writes with a softened voice, that tempers even the roughest scenes, which I found ultimately unique.
Now, looking at websites that specialize in the true history (or should I call it ‘herstory’) of Mata Hari (some of which seem vague, if not contradictory about certain details), I’m finding that there are some things that Murphy left out of this novel. While some might take issue with the facts, what Murphy was actually trying to do was portray Mata Hari from her own point of view, which obviously makes her an unreliable narrator. In fact, Murphy allows Mata Hari to make out like her dancing was more artistic than salacious, that her gathering of information about the war was short-lived and ineffective. By her own account, Mata Hari wasn’t the seductress of dozens of men, although she also doesn’t hide several of her trysts. All told, through Murphy’s book, Mata Hari comes off seeming pretty innocent, overly trusting, and desperate to be reunited with her daughter.
Speaking of unreliable narrators, that makes me think of the two other non-conventional novels I’ve read recently – “Vivian” and “Klotsvog.” The difference here is that while Vivian was aloof, making it difficult to get to know her, and Maya was difficult to like due to her harsh character, Mata Hari becomes an increasingly sympathetic character, despite her wildly contrasting reputation. By the time this novel comes to its inevitable end (Murphy doesn’t change history, thankfully), we feel like this was a woman who was almost admirable, despite all the disastrous (and possibly evil) mistakes she made throughout her life. Furthermore, we realize that her inner strength (assuming Murphy didn’t assume too much), was practically miraculous. Imagine how difficult it would have been for any woman, let alone an essentially abandoned one, to find a way to make enough money not only to survive, but to also continue her struggle to fight for custody of her daughter?
As my readers know, I am a particular fan of biographical, historical, women’s fiction, and this was one that certainly did not disappoint on any level. Yes, I’m sure that the real Mata Hari was possibly a dreadful human being in real life. She was probably cold and conniving, and possibly one of the most infamous female spies of her time. But with Murphy’s novel, all of these notorious aspects floated away like the seven veils she danced to, and we were left with just the memory of the many luxurious colors of silk she left behind. In short, I was entranced by this book, so I’m going to recommend it very highly and give it a full five out of five stars. (And it looks like I’ve got a new author to catch up on reading!)
Little, Brown and Company/The Hachette Book Group published “Signed, Mata Hari” by Yannick Murphy in 2007. You can buy this book (and other works by this author, via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you.