Signed, Mata Hari
Little, Brown & Co., 2007 (2007)
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
ho hasn't heard of the infamous World War I spy/femme fatale, Mata Hari? But how much else do we know about her? Very little, on my part. Now Yannnick Murphy brings us a historical novel in which Margaretha Zelle reminisces about her life - and how her reputation grew - from her prison cell in 1917 Paris. She tells folktales from her time in Indonesia to her interrogator, and writes letters to the daughter, Non, from whom she has long been separated.
igned, Mata Hari
has a dreamlike quality as it moves back and forth in time from Margaretha's childhood in the Netherlands, where her father deserted the family, her mother died, and she was raised by nuns - to her abusive marriage to Dutch naval captain Rudolph MacLeod on leave from his post in Java; the poisoning of her children - and death of her beloved son Norman in Indonesia; her husband's and her own affairs there; their return to Europe, where MacLeod took her daughter away from her; how Margaretha worked to support herself as an artist's model and then an exotic dancer (using what she had seen of temple dancers in Java); and her relationships with many wealthy lovers across Europe (which led to suspicion that she acted as a spy for the Germans).
ccording to Wikipedia, the historical record leaves doubt that Mata Hari really was a German spy. While leaving some ambiguity,
Signed, Mata Hari
supports that perspective, portraying a very sensual woman who had a great love and appreciation for nature, and an (unusual for a European of that era) openness to the islanders' culture in Java. Margaretha is shown here as a woman wronged as much as she was responsible for wrongdoing, but who ultimately - in a surprising twist in the novel's ending - accepted responsibility for the one great tragedy in her life.
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