I am a very contrary sort of person. If there is one thing likely to make me not indulge in some aspect of popular culture (be it a book, film or tv show) it is being told by lots of people, and the media, that I really must read/watch/listen to x. For me x has equalled Dan Brown novels (although I did eventually relent in the interests of research), the entire 50 Shades phenomena in all formats, ditto Game of Thrones and just about all films based on Marvel/DC comics. I’m sure the loss has been more mine than any of those massively successful franchises but I’ve always felt that life is too short to make commitments to series (either of books, films or tv shows) that you may not love. Maybe one day I’ll give in and go on a reading/box-set spree of GoT but until then I shall float like a butterfly from author to author, rarely getting beyond book one of any series. But that does mean that I really ought to try authors at least once – even if they are writers, like Paulo Coelho, who I have been aware of for years without having any urge to read them. Not that I think there is anything wrong with his books (over 65 millions purchasers can’t be wrong, surely?) but I’ve never really felt they were my kind of read.
Trawling through the offerings on Netgalley recently, however, I was struck by the cover for Coelho’s latest, the Spy, and decided to give him a go. The image suggested something with a period setting and an air of the exotic (for some reason I didn’t bother with the blurb…) – the reality, a novel about the life and death of Mata Hari, suggested that my book-jacket radar still works. We hear the story in the form of letters written by Mata Hari herself from prison just before her execution and by her lawyer. Mata Hari’s letters are intended for her only daughter (who, I later read, died only a few years after her mother, possibly as a result of her parent’s syphilis) and aim to explain her life as well as her death.
This isn’t a serious historical exploration of the facts around Mata Hari’s life and death but the little details of fashion and general society seem pretty accurate. I don’t feel that I know the truth about whether she was a spy or not but the story hangs together very well. I was less comfortable with the letter by the lawyer at the end – for me it added little beyond an understanding of Coelho’s own philosophy. But if you are already a fan of the author then you’ll love this bit as well. What I liked most was the personality of Mata Hari herself – a strong, determined woman aware of her faults. Even if she were being untruthful about her spying activities the charm and allure of the woman would be enough to make this an enjoyable read.