four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-Signed Mata HariIt might be said that a real person becomes a myth when more has been imagined about her than could possibly be known. If so, Mata Hari certainly qualifies: the dancer, courtesan, and alleged WWI-era double agent has seduced dozens of authors and actors into portraying her (most notably Greta Garbo). Yannick Murphy sought to reveal the real person behind the legend—a long-suffering Dutch woman named Margaretha Zelle. But instead of a revisionist biography, Murphy wrote a novel, expanding the mythology to embrace Margaretha’s tragic childhood, abusive husband, lost children, and questionable guilt. Beginning in Mata Hari’s jail cell, the story’s perspective shifts between the prisoner and her persecutors, unveiling surprises even for readers who know how the story ends.
Little, Brown. 288 pages. $23.99. ISBN: 031611264X

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Murphy doesn’t dwell on the question of Zelle’s guilt or innocence, and that’s just fine. Instead, she concentrates on the life of a woman, an unabashed bohemian, who was vilified by the same kinds of weak men who once desired her." Renée Graham."

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Was Mata Hari really the devious, coldhearted spy of folklore? You won’t know the answer to ‘devious’ or ‘spy’ when you finish this novel, but you’ll be convinced that ‘coldhearted’ was never part of her makeup. As for the other questions, the alchemy wrought by both the author and her heroine is so persuasive that you probably won’t even care." Joy Tipping

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The liberties Murphy has taken in her reimagining of Margaretha’s inner life are all the more credible for her close study of the details surrounding the historical Mata Hari’s case. … Murphy’s Signed, Mata Hari is a profound and profoundly beautiful novel, one that forcefully renews literary fiction’s claim to be a laboratory of the human spirit." Timothy Rutten

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"At times closer to poetry than prose, the book’s short chapters, some only a paragraph long, paint small scenes, a moment, a feeling, each of which lingers on in the chapters that follow it." Tammar Stein

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While Murphy employs great descriptive nuance, there are moments when Mata Hari’s voice sounds like a florid dilettante. … Is this clashing imagery intended? Or do such missteps come with the burden of literary impersonation?" Edward Champion

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though Murphy remains true to the grim facts of the conclusion, the latter third of Mata Hari’s story gathers speed, tension, even pulse-quickening suspense, and we feel for her as we might for a dear, ruinously clueless friend. I found myself rushing through the final pages—to an ending that satisfies, opening out into a kaleidoscopic tribute, at once tender and wise." Joan Frank

Critical Summary

Yannick Murphy’s novel certainly seduced reviewers, but such seduction may have derived from the author’s literary dance rather than from readers’ inherent interest in the subject. Critics admired Murphy’s masterful descriptions, shifts in perspectives, and attention to details alternately selected and invented from the real Margaretha Zelle’s life. The result is a poetic novel that will draw in even those who never thought they would enjoy reading about exotic European espionage. (The case documents will be unsealed in 2017, then revealing whether or not Mata Hari was a spy.) The only consistent criticism of the book was that some of the sex scenes seem more mythological than real—but then again, this is Mata Hari.