Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover, 278 pages, 2007

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I like books that are set in unusual locations, and Indonesia qualified.

Synopsis: Mata Hari sits in her Paris jail cell, accused of spying for Germany during World War I. While waiting for her trial, her life story pours out like an offering: her childhood, her marriage to an impossible man, tragedies, and a re-invention of herself into something more sensual and free – the self that will lead to her imprisonment and possible punishment…

Why you should read this book: Adrift in sensual memories, Mata Hari pulls her reader into her spirited life, letting them feel her yearnings to be more than just a doormat to her abusive and crushing force of a husband: to be a woman worthy of telling the story, ‘I walked across the sea.’ Of course, any freedoms she earns for herself will come at a price, and Mata Hari walks a thin line deciding what she can pay. Even from the misery of her cold, damp prison cell, we’re allowed to feel the heat of her life in Indonesia, the thankfulness for her children, the sting of rejection and her appetite for adoration. Poetic yet forceful, this skillful blend of hope, tragedy, and a certain mysteriousness will entice you to stay in Mata Hari’s world to discover her fate and, most of all, if her sacrifices were worth it in the end.

Why you should avoid this book: Murphy hurtles you into the story at the start of the book with minimal explanation (some of which doesn’t come till almost the very end) so you might want to avoid Signed Mata Hari if you prefer a more linear storyline.

Opening paragraph:

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 trapped in a cellar, now mixing with their prayers.

Fabulous quotes:

She knew the make of her lovers’ overcoats, which they took off their own backs and threw over puddles so she could cross streets without wetting her shoes. She knew Bouchardon would think these were all clues to prove her guilt and she fed them to him, wondering when he would realize that what she was telling him were just the memories of a middle-aged woman who once had many lovers, and they were not the memories of some coldhearted spy intent on the defeat of the Allied forces.

When Dr. VanVoort came and looked over my shoulder, he asked, Where am I in the picture? And I told him that if MacLeod were to see him in the picture, he might put two and two together and that was a four I did not want to have to explain.

Also recommended: Frangipani by Celestine Vaite; The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani; Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue.

Also by this author: Stories in Another Language; The Sea of Trees; Here They Come.

Author’s website:

Fun tidbit: Murphy’s Story ‘In a Bear’s Eye’ was published in the 2007 edition of The O. Henry Prize Stories, an annual collection of twenty of the year’s best short stories.

Would I read more by this author? I’d probably read any new books Murphy comes out with.

&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2008

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