Signed, Mata Hari
  • Signed, Mata Hari
  • Signed, Mata Hari

Signed, Mata Hari

3.8 7
by Yannick Murphy

In the cold October of 1917 Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, sits in a prison cell in Paris awaiting trial on charges of espionage. The penalty is death by firing squad. As she waits, burdened by a secret guilt, Mata Hari tells stories, Scheherazade-like, to buy back her life from her interrogators.
From a bleak childhood in the Netherlands, through

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In the cold October of 1917 Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, sits in a prison cell in Paris awaiting trial on charges of espionage. The penalty is death by firing squad. As she waits, burdened by a secret guilt, Mata Hari tells stories, Scheherazade-like, to buy back her life from her interrogators.
From a bleak childhood in the Netherlands, through a loveless marriage to a Dutch naval officer, Margaretha is transported to the forbidden sensual pleasures of Indonesia. In the chill of her prison cell she spins tales of rosewater baths, native lovers, and Javanese jungles, evoking the magical world that sustained her even as her family crumbled. And then, in flight from her husband, Margaretha reinvents herself: she becomes an artist's model, circus rider, and finally the temple dancer Mata Hari, dressed in veils, admired by Diaghilev, performing for the crowned heads of Europe. Through all her transformations, her life's fatal questions—- was she a traitor, and if so, why?—-burns ever brighter.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In life, at least before the espionage charges, it was Mata Hari's body that made her mesmerizing; in this alluring novel, it is her hypnotic voice. As softly poetic as it is insistent, it entices the reader from the first lines to give Mata Hari what she always craved: not the secrets that are the currency of a spy, but the rapt attention that is oxygen to a performer. Shifting time and perspective, the tale moves among Mata Hari's early childhood in the late 19th-century Netherlands, her years in Java as a caring young mother married to a brutal military man, her glamorous but desperate career as a famed dancer and courtesan and her bleak existence in a Paris prison after her arrest as a spy for Germany during WWI. Murphy (Here They Come) sticks with the true ending to her subject's story, which was death by firing squad, and what makes the novel an unlikely achievement is how Murphy nurtures, before the shots are fired, a potent skepticism about the guilt of a woman whose name even today is synonymous with treachery. In its subdued way, this novel is an eloquent cri de coeur and a belated witness for the defense. (Nov.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

The award-winning Murphy (Here They Come) has extrapolated from details of the life of legendary Dutch dancer and suspected World War I spy Mata Hari to create a fictional persona marked by sensitivity, desperation, and longing. The novel begins with an imagined scenario in which this daring woman remembers skipping school as a child to take a death-defying walk in the ocean at low tide. The memory of this incident functions as something of a thread of courage for Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a. Mata Hari, throughout her adult life. Margaretha went from an abusive marriage spent mainly on an island in the South Pacific to a career as a famous burlesque dancer and courtesan to imprisonment in 1917 Paris as a suspected German spy. Murphy reconfigures the narrative in various ways, moving, for example, between chapters describing Mata Hari's current imprisonment and chapters recounting her past-a technique that effectively builds tension concerning Mata Hari's fate. Though the novel is as fascinating as Mata Hari herself and occasionally brilliant in the way it re-creates her life, some readers may not find the protagonist's voice or painful circumstances to their liking. Nevertheless, this is recommended for most fiction collections as a haunting portrayal of an intriguing woman.
—Maureen Neville

Kirkus Reviews
An impressionistic portrait of the famous spy-in reality an abused wife and mother with intense sexual charms. Abandoned by her father and orphaned when her mother died, young Dutch Margaretha finds herself working for a teacher who molests her, then dependent on her unsympathetic uncle. Seeking escape, she enters into a bad marriage to MacLeod, a cruel, promiscuous, half-deranged army captain. Murphy's third novel (Here They Come, 2006, etc.) switches between Margaretha's dreamy but chronological account of her unhappy progression and scenes from later prison life, in which she is tended by nuns and interrogated by the French for spying. After the birth of their son Norman, MacLeod and Margaretha move to Java, where his behavior worsens. Wearied by the tropical rain, Margaretha starts to use the name Mata Hari, meaning sunrise. She has an affair with another Dutch officer while MacLeod visits prostitutes. A daughter, Non, is born, but MacLeod's abuse of one of the servants leads to the children being poisoned and Norman dies. Mata Hari survives typhoid and eventually persuades MacLeod to move back to Europe. Once there, he ejects her from the marriage and excludes her from care of Non. Short of cash, Mata Hari is forced to become an erotic dancer in Paris and mistress to men who reward her with jewels, cash, even a horse. When World War I begins she is asked to spy by the French but exposed by the Germans, later arrested in Paris, tried and shot. All she ever wanted was her daughter back. Vague on facts but intense, atmospheric and erotic, this is more prose poem than historical novel.

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Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
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5.87(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.87(d)

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Signed, Mata Hari

By Yannick Murphy

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2007 Yannick Murphy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-11264-2

Chapter One


I CHEATED DEATH. I walked across the sea. When the tide was low I went over the furrowed sandbanks in my small bare feet. I skipped school one day and traveled to an island near my home called Ameland. I had heard stories, every child who lived in the Netherlands knew the stories, about the mud like quicksand and about the water like a great gray wall when the tide came in and how it could catch you and knock you down and pour into your mouth and drown you so that you couldn't ever return, no matter how hard you tried to climb out of the mud like quicksand and over the great gray wall. But I returned. I went back to the nuns, who had been tolling bells, looking for me. When they found me they showed me their palms, raw from pulling the bell's rope, and they took me to the headmistress for punishment. Walking to her chambers I whispered proudly into the black folds of their habits. I have walked across the sea. Later my whispers came out as the nuns knelt for Mass, released like cold air once trapped in a cellar, now mixing with their prayers.

I KNEW my walk at low tide to the island of Ameland would always be with me. I was to walk it years later, again and again, in bed with men who snored beside me, a meaty arm of theirs across my chest. In the hot, sweaty jungles of Java I walked the wet sand to Ameland and did not always smell the smell of the lotus growing out my window, but instead I smelled the cold salt spray of the ocean of my homeland. I walked my walk to Ameland most often in the prison of Saint-Lazare, where every stone on the floor of my cell held a trip for me across the darkened sand. When I walked back, I turned around and looked over my shoulder to watch the sea advancing. Try and catch me, I said out loud, and what answered back was the sky, at first in low rumbles, then louder as thunder rolled closer. But it never did catch me, and I outran the tide and lived.

FIRST THERE is flour, mother said in the kitchen. Then the eggs. With the flour on her hands, puffing up along her arms, she was already becoming a ghost.

The cake she made was for my birthday. My father said that in a country called Mexico the birthday child's face is pushed into the cake. For good luck and a long life, he said.

Not in this country, my mother said, and she slid the cake away from me so that I would not push my face into her frosting, spread with a spoon so that it looked like small cuppy waves, curved tips held suspended in a gentle roll.

Father said, Next birthday when you are fifteen, Margaretha, you can do it.

I was given weekly horseback riding lessons for my birthday.

After the lessons I went to Father's store.

One time he showed me a hat.

Touch it, he said. He rubbed the soft felt against my cheek.

Think of the animal that died so that this hat could be made from its fur, he said.

I pushed the hat away. I wanted to think of all the men who would wear the hat and the parties they would wear it to.

Father put the hat in the window to display it, but I knew that in an hour or so he would take it down and replace it with another hat from a shelf inside the store. By doing this, he kept the colors of the hats from fading in the sun.

Father was not there for my next birthday. He closed up his shop. He took down all the hats and sold them at reduction and held the cash in his hand and licked his fingertips to count without making a mistake. I sat in the storefront window. The sun beat down through the glass and I now knew how quickly the hats could fade and lose their color and I thought how funny that was because everyone had always told me to stay out of the sun, saying it would make my olive skin darker.

After he was gone, all that was left of him was a flowered vest he once wore that hung in the closet. The vest was stretched around the waist, where the girth of him had pushed against the cloth. Mother never put anything else in the closet, and if I opened the door quickly, the breeze would set the flowered vest in motion on the wooden hanger.

He gave us no address. He left saying he would come for us after he found a job in the south.

Mother cried at night. There were holes in the walls, large patches where the paint was peeling and the plaster was crumbling. I thought her cries would enter the holes and stay forever in the house, trapped and ricocheting behind our walls. I tried to drown out the cries by pounding out songs on the keys of the piano, but all that happened was the paint peeled even more, the plaster crumbled to the floor and left small white piles like those inside a sand timer, marking hours that could not be turned upside down.

I found mother dead in the kitchen. The white flour was on her apron. It was up her arms. It was between the laces of her boots. It was in her mouth. The doctor said she died from an infection in her lungs. I thought she died from breathing in the flour. From the inside out, it turned her into a ghost. I never went into that kitchen again. The kitchen can kill you, I thought. I closed my eyes and was walking across the sea. Each time I remembered it, it was as if I were more there than the first time. I noticed more things. The white sand crabs burrowing beside my feet. The water coming in, the bubbles springing up from beneath me, filling in between my toes, creeping up the hem of my silk skirt.


Excerpted from Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy Copyright © 2007 by Yannick Murphy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Yannick Murphy is the author of Stories in Another Language, The Sea of Trees, and Here They Come. She lives in Reading, Vermont, with her husband and three children.

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Signed, Mata Hari 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
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luvianka More than 1 year ago
highly recommend it
prettydiva2198 More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favorites it kind ok gives you the idea of her life lovers etc Truly recommend it