Book review: Mata Hari by Michelle Moran

Since she was executed for spying for the Germans in 1917, the exotic dancer and Parisian courtesan Mata Hari has become one of the world's most infamous femmes fatales.

Wednesday, 3rd August 2016, 10:00 am
Mata Hari byMichelle Moran
Mata Hari byMichelle Moran

But was the Dutch-born seducer the calculating and manipulative double agent of legend… or a naïve chancer caught up in the dangerous politics of war?

Michelle Moran, author of a string of fascinating historical novels including Nefertiti and The Last Queen of India, sweeps us away to early 20th century Indonesia, the boulevards of Paris, the palaces of Madrid and the bleak barrack rooms of war-torn Europe in an absorbing tale of fame, fortune and tragedy.

In a cold prison cell in Paris in 1917, Mata Hari awaits freedom or execution after being arrested by the French government for spying for Germany, and consequently causing the death of thousands of soldiers.

Alone and despondent, the 41-year-old dancer is as confused as the rest of the world about the charges against her and while she waits for her fate to be decided, she looks back over her life and the events that have brought her to this unimaginable crisis.

Margaretha (M’greet ) Zelle’s childhood in the Netherlands was carefree until her father abandoned the family, her mother died and 18-year-old M’greet fell quickly into a disastrous marriage to Dutch military officer Rudolph MacLeod who was living in the Dutch East Indies.

Taken to the island of Java, M’greet, a determined, clever young woman and now a mother herself, refused to be ruled by her abusive husband and instead visited temples, learned to dance and honed her natural gift for languages.

Forced to leave behind her husband and daughter and head to Paris in 1904, M’greet used her unusually dark hair, dark eyes and bronzed skin to reinvent herself as Mata Hari, an exotic dancer who thrilled audiences with risqué shows that gave her access to people and places she never thought possible.

Soon, and with the help of her lawyer, agent and friend Edouard Clunet, Mata Hari was Europe’s most infamous nearly-nude dancer but when war descended, her obsession for men in uniform set the dancer on the road to her downfall…

As Moran explains in her Author’s Note, even a century after Mata Hari’s death, the truth of her life – what is fact and what is fiction – is still hard to separate but this rich, colourful and often moving reimagining of a remarkable woman is both seductive and exciting.

Mata Hari was, by all accounts, ‘an extraordinary teller of tales’ and Moran stays true to what is known of the enigmatic fallen star whose chequered career has inspired films, books, stage musicals and even a ballet.

By bringing to life the exotic world of fame she inhabited, the people she knew and loved, and the landscape of war that would both make and break her, Moran paints Mata Hari as a complex, compelling woman rather than just the treacherous spy of legend.

Packed with drama, detail, passion and real history, this is a captivating and thought-provoking portrait of an intriguing historical figure.

(Quercus, paperback, £13.99)