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.
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.