cover image The Spy

The Spy

Paulo Coelho, trans. from the Portuguese by Zoe Perry. Knopf, $22 (208p) ISBN 978-1-5247-3206-6

Coelho's striking novel about Margaretha Zelle, aka Mata Hari, the Dutch courtesan and "exotic" dancer who was executed in 1917 for treason and in all likelihood was innocent, unfolds through letters to her lawyer that she hopes will be given to her daughter if she is killed. Smooth, assured writing reveals a woman who refuses to be a victim: "someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay." She was raped by her headmaster at school and abused by her husband (a Dutch military officer), and she retaliated by exploiting the European love of the mysterious Orient through her "Eastern" veil dances. Although the novel is not Coelho's strongest work, the ending is brilliant in its irony, and throughout, he displays an ability to inhabit her voice. Through the letters, he illustrates the difficulties of being an independent woman in that time and place. By the end, readers will believe they've read Zelle's actual letters. (Nov.)