For a woman who enjoyed only a brief glittering success on the best stages in Europe and an even more dubious career in espionage, Mata Hari is a surprisingly enduring source of fascination. As a female icon, her story has been told and retold so many times that it has become difficult to pick apart fact from fiction.
The irony, of course, is that the life of Marguerite Zelle MacLeod, aka Mata Hari, was meticulously documented by her French prosecutors in 1917. In 2001, a French publisher reproduced every scrap of her dossier. For a novelist approaching this subject, it has become harder to say anything new; the writer is left with the awkward problem of facts that reveal a contradictory (and sometimes unlikeable) character.
Yannick Murphy is the latest novelist to venture into this well-trodden territory. Where she invents, filling in little-known corners of Mata Hari's life, the prose is vivid and compelling. Mata Hari's narrative, as she awaits her execution on espionage charges at Vincennes in October 1917, loops back to an image of her journey across the sands at low tide to the island of Ameland. She treads courageously, ignoring the rumours about quicksand and knowing that the sea will close in upon her. Despite the surface glamour and romance of her career, Mata Hari is essentially alone and doomed.
Murphy dwells on painful episodes that, like the seawater of Ameland, return to haunt her in her cell: her wretched marriage to a Dutch officer, Rudolph MacLeod, who abused her and drank; the death of her son Norman from poisoning; the loss of her daughter, Non; her desertion by Vadime de Masloff, a young Russian officer. This Mata Hari knows her sexual value and uses it to survive in an era when women, especially those who had fallen from bourgeois society, had few choices. Murphy imagines her as a woman with a penchant for sexual tricks, one that she uses to great effect as a courtesan in Paris. Murphy doesn't really tackle whether Mata Hari was guilty of espionage; she assumes that she was used by a group of powerful, ruthless men. Like casual prostitution, spying was a means to an end.
Despite some sensual prose and a convincing character, the story creaks awkwardly where Murphy's invention clashes with historical facts. Such reinvention just adds another layer to the myth, obscuring rather than revealing the strange life of Marguerite Zelle MacLeod.
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