'The Red Dancer' (Faber & Faber reissue, 2017)
Love, sex, infamy and betrayal: the story of one of the greatest female icons of the twentieth century.
When Margaretha Zelle, a young woman living in The Hague, answers a lonely hearts advertisement she becomes drawn into a relationship with an army captain twice her age. After a hasty wedding, they depart for Indonesia, where the marriage collapses amid infidelity and violence. Seeking a new life, Margaretha returns to Europe and travels to Paris, where she adopts the stage name Mata Hari, reinventing herself as an exotic dancer. In her new role she attracts the attention of numerous admirers, many of whom are officers, ready to share their secrets with a woman of notorious allure and intrigue, as Europe lurches towards explosive conflict.
‘Tentatively, delicately and poignantly fills in the person behind the myth.’ Observer
‘An original and absorbing version of a cryptic life.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘Seduces from its very first line . . . I delighted in the passionate characters, the beautiful scenes and interwoven stories.’ Chloé Esposito
‘A shining mosaic of a novel in which fiction is fused with fact, this is a dazzlingly researched portrait of the life of Mata Hari.’ Joanna Briscoe
Further praise for The Red Dancer:
‘The Red Dancer seduces from its very first line, ‘I am absolutely Oriental’, then like an exotic striptease performed on a stage filled with shadows and flowers, it reveals, glimpse by glimpse, the eponymous Mata Hari. Was she Gerda, Margaretha or Madame MacLeod? Mother, dancer, courtesan, lover or spy? By the end of the book one feels that one has travelled with her through turn of the century Indonesia, the sparkling cafés of Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and the impossibly glamorous Orient Express. Never have I learnt more from reading a work of fiction! This is an ambitious and experimental book, one which packs an emotional punch and surprises with twists and revelations when one least expects. I delighted in the passionate characters, the beautiful scenes and interwoven stories, which shine like rubies and precious jewels all set in a gilt gold bracelet.’ Chloé J. Esposito
‘An intriguing and utterly beguiling account of the life of the iconic, enigmatic and elusive Margaretha Zelle, Lady Gerda McLeod, Mata Hari; from young bride to exotic dancer to German spy. The shapeshifting form of The Red Dancer, a deft and intoxicating blend of fiction and non-fiction, conjures perfectly the various lives of its protagonist, Mata Hari is as much a myth as a person, a mass of reinventions and contradictions, fears and projected desires, and The Red Dancer embraces this. I finished The Red Dancer even more intrigued by the woman than before I started reading, surely testament to the book’s bewitching power.’ Lucy Caldwell
‘This is quite a story. Refreshingly original and utterly captivating in style. With the glamour, thrills and mysteries of this roller coaster of a life. A calm rendition of the facts allows the raw emotions felt for such a doomed and tragic ‘heroine’ to strike home with a reality that is immensely powerful.’ Essie Fox (you can read Essie's full review here)
‘A shining mosaic of a novel in which fiction is fused with fact, this is a dazzlingly researched portrait of the life of Mata Hari. Its fragmented narratives form a controlled drama, thanks to Richard Skinner’s characteristic restraint. There is cool poetry here, an incendiary subject viewed through a series of lenses.’ Joanna Briscoe
‘A fascinating reconstruction of the life of Mata Hari, ingeniously weaving fact and fiction to give us the bare bones of the woman while still maintaining her mystery.’ Esther Freud
'It’s a story that changes with the light. In one direction, you can read the masterful ascent of a woman out of poverty and into the annals of history. In another direction you can read the doomed descent of a woman used and abused by men who cared not a jot for her happiness, her health, or her safety. In the middle there’s Gerda herself, whose consciousness we rarely enter in this novel, and who accounts for her actions with only one justification: ‘once she had an impulse, she acted on it quickly.’ Was she a woman of loose morals who believed her own lies? Or a gutsy survivor using the only resource that society cared to place at her disposal – the uncontrollable lust of men? The beautifully written narrative passes through numerous viewpoints, including her bitter husband, the impresario who made her, the journalist who interviews her, her loyal maid, the Russian officer who fell in love with her, the prison doctor, the youngest member of the firing squad. Each account tantalises but cannot solve the mystery.' Victoria Best, author of An Introduction to Twentieth-Century French Literature
‘A fictionalised life of Mata Hari that tentatively, delicately and poignantly fills in the person behind the myth.' Anna Shapiro, Observer
‘An original and absorbing version of a cryptic life.’ Tamsin Dean, Sunday Telegraph
‘Creating first-person accounts from a cross-section of people who would have known her – army officers, maids, critics – Skinner conjures a life from the myths.’ Jemima Hunt, Guardian
‘A short, riveting book. An assured debut.’ Sunday Express
‘This recreation of the life, loves, fame and infamy of Margaretha Zelle, aka Mata Hari, is completely absorbing, with its collage of fiction and historical detail.' Bookseller
‘This fictional recreation of the life of exotic dancer and spy Mata Hari eschews sensationalism in favour of an elegant understatedness that lends gravitas to a sad and complex tale. The strange facts of Hari’s life are conveyed with elegance and humanity through a series of disconnected vignettes of her life as dancer, courtesan, spy and prisoner.’ Big Issue
‘Skinner’s novel is profoundly intriguing and informative . . . this is a serious, thorough work about a remarkable subject.’ Beth Kephart, Book
‘A mosaic as impressively enigmatic as its notorious subject.’ Kirkus Reviews
‘Fascinating. This is an impressive debut – impeccably researched, cleverly structured and boldly written.’ Lucy Powell, Ham & High
'In The Mirror, Richard Skinner imagined the adventures of the deceased Erik Satie in the afterlife. This fictionalised biography of the notorious First World War spy Mata Hari is more conventional but no less accomplished, examining its subject from a number of angles but still leaving the woman herself a tantalising enigma. Through the eyes of several narrators, he tells of how, in The Hague in 1895, Margaretha Zelle marries Rudolph MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch army twice her age, and goes with him to Indonesia. Abandoned by MacLeod after bearing him two children, she makes her way to Paris and reinvents herself as a star from the exotic East before being recruited by the German secret service and meeting a tragic end. Skinner has immersed himself in the era, allowing him to digress into Cubism, gamelan music and even dowsing, giving depth and weight to the world Mata Hari moved through while allowing his spy to retain her essential mystery.' Alastair Mabbott, Scottish Herald
You can read my introduction to the reissue here.
You can buy a copy of the novel here.