Real Hope For Dark Days

It’s a sore trial living in the UK at the moment. After three years of the shambolic Brexit debacle, in which zero progress has been made, we’re now forced to witness a leadership contest that showcases the most dismal collection of candidates – more of a police line-up than a beauty parade. Worst of all, Boris Johnson is supposed to win, which makes me feel like I’m living in a piece of Dadaist theatre except they tell me it’s really happening. How a man who has been sacked twice for lying, who caused chaos in the Foreign Office and wasted millions as Mayor of London, who basically has no principles and is known to be lazy, self-serving and ready to give up at the first obstacle can possibly become Prime Minister beggars belief. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t sat here laughing at Trump all this time. Anyway, enough. It’s just depressing to acknowledge what the plausible leaders of our country now look like.

It’s just as well, then, that books can offer genuine hope and solace. If you have inadvertently glanced at the online comments on the Guardian website lately and lost all hope in humanity, I have two books that will restore it. Growing Pains by Dr Mike Shooter and Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy are both non-fiction accounts of lives spent helping children to find their best and most promising selves. Mike Shooter is a child psychiatrist in the NHS, Kate Clanchy teaches English in a multi-cultural comprehensive, and they have brought much joy and inspiration into our house lately, with narratives that are a patchwork of fascinating case histories.

Growing Pains is the story of Mike Shooter’s career listening to adolescents (and their families) in crisis. He begins the book with an honest account of his own depression and his early work in medicine. It’s one particular encounter, at 2am on a terminal ward that changes the course of his life. He is following the Senior Registrar – ‘aloof, taciturn, straight-backed’ – to check on a Mr Dobbs, who is dying of an aneurysm. They find, as one might expect, a terrified man.

Simon sat on his bed and asked him if he was frightened. Mr Dobbs nodded; he was beyond words. Then Simon, straight-laced, Simon, the man we thought more suited to a brigade of guards than patient care, took him in his arms and rocked him to and fro like a baby, while Mr Dobbs sobbed into his shoulder.’

The next morning, Simon is absent and Mike Shooter is asked if he’ll talk to Mr Dobbs instead. He is so afraid of the prospect that he goes to see the Dean of the Medical School instead, to tell him he’s quitting. But the Dean, a wise old soul, says no he isn’t; he’ll make a good doctor one day, but he’s depressed. ‘And the worse you feel about yourself, the harder you work to prove you’re wrong. You’ve been fighting against what you really feel for years. This was bound to happen. Mr Dobbs was just the final straw.’ The Dean arranges for him to see a psychiatrist, and over the course of the next few years, the treatment Mike Shooter receives makes him realise that this is the field he wants to dedicate himself to. The ability to ‘see beyond [the] patient’s symptoms to the human being behind them’ was the rule he wanted to follow.

Well by now you might be able to see beyond the words of this review to the readers behind them – the only problem we had with it was that it kept making Mr Litlove cry. And if Mr Litlove cries, then I cry, that’s just how it goes. I need to stress that these were not tears of sadness, but the more complicated throat-tightening tears of beauty and humanity. And I should also stress that this is not at all a manipulative book. Dr Shooter never dwells on any part of his story and in consequence the narrative was not harrowing, despite the subject matter. It was inspirational, in the most grounded and humane ways. One of the stories that stays with me still concerns another middle of the night emergency call that summons Dr Shooter to a household in crisis.  An eight-year-old child, Danny, is threatening to kill himself. When the doctor arrives, the child is on the landing, his pyjama cord around his neck, the other end tied to the banisters, and his desperate, angry, fearful parents are hypnotised by the situation. Mike Shooter’s response is to come in as if everything were normal, exclaim at the lateness of the hour and express a strong need for a cup of tea. He asks if Danny would like a snack before bedtime, and the spell of craziness is dispelled by the autopilot of ordinary hospitality. Everyone comes and sits around the tea tray in the middle of the living room where it becomes apparent that the man is the mother’s new partner whom Danny is rejecting and that ‘they all wanted to change things but didn’t know how to do it without tearing each other apart’ A problem with which I imagine we are all familiar, and where salvation can come so much more quickly with someone calm, kind and firm to help.

Kate Clanchy’s book also focusses on individual students as they struggle and triumph on the battlefield of education and the stories she tells are just as fascinating, whether it’s the way the word ‘gay’ has signified in classrooms across the years, or what the parents of excluded children are up against when they try to get their kids a fair educational deal. Kate is also a poet and her poetry club becomes one of the major features in her stories, as she finds it can be a real liberation for all kinds of children, including those who have English as a second language or who suffer from dyslexia. She tackles knotty subjects like selection in schools – both streaming in classes and the nightmare parents face when trying to decide what school to pick for their children. And she talks about the pleasures and pains of teaching English.

There are so many stories I love, I don’t know which to tell you about. But just off the top of my head, there’s Allen, a large, capable boy more suited to open spaces, but bright and interested in English literature. He was that mythical beast, an adolescent boy willing to talk about emotions, and as such he stimulated real class discussion. It just so happened that this class was one in which Kate could exercise her own judgement to some extent and choose the books that would best inspire her students (not something that happens these days). Twenty-five years later she looks him up on Linked-In and finds out that he runs an engineering business and is a self-made millionaire, He in turn remembers her lessons as a place where ‘I learned who I was.’ ‘English:’ Clanchy writes, ‘the lesson where you laugh about sex, and argue about war, and talk about jealousy. English: where you grow up.’ The problem is that English, like poetry, does not ‘WALT’ well. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ and has become the staple of ‘formative assessment’ which the government likes a lot. It comes from the best of motives, Clanchy explains, the desire to open up a learning process that might appear hidden or opaque. But what works well for a science lesson is altogether harder to pin down in the arts and humanities. The consequence has been that WALT dominates lesson plans and the non-WALT aspects of education, like artistic creativity and all that nebulous maturation process get left out of the curriculum.

The stories in both books inevitably bump up against politics because both authors are working on the cliff edge where the vulnerable and the economically-nonprofitable clash with government funding. But these are not polemical books. They are about thoughtful people who are really good at their jobs understanding the pressures on all sides and doing their best for children, however that shakes out. Listening to these books has made me think a lot about what’s wrong with the world today, and for my own part I think it boils down to an insufficient engagement with reality. I blame the media mostly, for their two-note grizzles of sentimentality and outrage, emotions that reliably sell papers, but which have made us all happy to be ignorant. It takes terrific courage to face the truth of our lives, and mostly we are invited to side step that reality and find someone else to blame. Or we end up letting ourselves be sold ideals of perfection and purity that are equally dangerous.

What I loved about these books is their authors’ readiness to talk about getting things wrong. Clanchy produces such an admirably nuanced description of Cheyenne, a poor working class child who spent her time pushing Kate’s middle-class buttons and stalking her children, whom Kate could not truly like. And I loved the story in which Mike Shooter is called to deal with a psychotic break in an adolescent who has been wrongly placed in the adult ward. Hassan escaped his nurses and ran around the grounds of the unit, talking in Somali and scooping mud and grass into his mouth. Shooter thought it possible that he was just terrified and involved in some kind of prayer ritual he didn’t understand, so he called the Somali elders from the community to come and advise him. After a few minutes they turned on him. asking how he dared call himself a doctor and telling him to get the boy some medication. It’s not about mistakes – if you’re a human being engaged in something you care about, you will be making mistakes. They are inevitable. What these stories show is that it’s about the process – the process of finding out what’s wrong and of learning and becoming more self-aware in consequence, possibly the most important process that we are called upon to practice on a regular basis and which we avoid and fumble and foul up out of embarrassed pride or some weird, punitive notion that it ‘shouldn’t happen.’

These have both been terrific books, loved and admired equally by myself and Mr Litlove. They have made us laugh and cry and feel deeply in touch with both the difficult business of growing up and the authentic hope embedded in the care of people like Mike Shooter and Kate Clanchy that we might actually make it. For they have a lot to teach adults too, as a quick glance around the political candidates for Tory party leader can tell us. They’ve made me want to have a completely different kind of identity politics, one in which gender, skin colour, race, religion, none of these thing matter, but where the identity is question is that of a grown-up and it’s an identity to which we all aspire.

Decades of capitalism have encouraged us to stay children with the goal of becoming spoiled children. I think it’s given us very complicated feelings about people who are able shamelessly to make a fool of themselves in public, and that sometimes such people can be used to assuage us about our insecurities. This is an indulgence – something that makes us feel better in the short-term but worse in the long-term. What we need is to admire the grown-up again, the sensible, grounded person who doesn’t make a fuss about things, but who won’t sit passive when they could offer help. The sort of person who, currently, says the wise, placatory thing on social media and is totally ignored. We need the kind of grown-up who has a strong moral compass and a great deal of compassion, who has emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the courage to look reality in the eye, even when it is ugly. The kind of grown-up who can sit with people in emotional distress and not make it about themselves. We need more Mike Shooters and Kate Clanchys, basically, and the fact that they have written these books shows that such people are out there, it’s just that we so rarely get to hear about them. For me they’ve been a properly optimistic antidote to everything going on in the news, and the embodiment of an aspiration that is as difficult as becoming rich and famous but infinitely more desirable.

 

 

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Blood Out of a Stoner

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this when I have completely lost faith in this kind of blog post, but Mr Litlove and I have discussed Stoner and its problems so much he said he’d be interested to see how it came out. So, for what it’s worth, these are the processes of thought that occurred to me over the course of the past couple of weeks, as Mr Litlove read John William’s novel, Stoner, to me, and the book turned out to be so very different to my expectations. All I knew about Stoner was that it had had a massive rediscovery somewhere around 2011 and been hailed as an unjustly forgotten masterpiece. I’d seen loads of rave reviews in which it was called beautiful, gentle, moving, sad. I was in no way prepared, then, for how much it would annoy me.

The story is indeed simple: William Stoner grows up on a farm in the Midwest of America, but when his father sends him to college to study agriculture, Stoner has a revelation and a change of heart. He falls in love with American literature and carries on at Columbia as a teacher for the rest of his working life. He makes a disastrous marriage to a neurotic harpy who seems determined to ruin any chance of domestic happiness, and he makes a dangerous enemy of a neurotic colleague who becomes Head of Department and impedes Stoner’s career progression.  Stoner remains stoic throughout these trials, maintaining his passion for literature, or maybe just putting one foot in front of the other, it’s hard to tell in John Williams’ masterly style which I came to think of as: don’t show and don’t tell.

For instance, Stoner’s epiphany and his conversion to literature come in a Shakespeare class in which he is asked the meaning of a sonnet. All Stoner can get out is ‘It means….’ in a sentence he simply cannot finish. And that is all we’ll ever hear about Stoner’s passion for literature. Mr Litlove felt that this was deeply unsatisfactory. He came to think that Stoner loved literature because work on the farm was so hard, so awful, and by comparison an English degree was a doddle. I didn’t think that; I could believe that Stoner loved literature, but I wondered then how Stoner could be so unable to articulate himself, despite that prolonged and profound study in how language is used to describe and shape life.

The real problem for me began with Stoner’s marriage. He falls in love with a young woman, Edith, who happens to be staying for a few weeks with relatives who are connected to the university. Stoner sees her and falls in love with her and then he lays siege to her. Their relationship is from the get-go awkward, embarrassed and without a trace of love. They aren’t even friends. But Stoner persists in desiring marriage and Edith seems to go along with it. Then we get to the honeymoon which is always going to be difficult with two innocent and stilted people. So far, so plausible, and we can all wonder how any of our ancestors managed life prior to the availability of the internet. Then Williams takes us right into the marriage bed:

When he returned Edith was in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin, her face turned upward, her eyes closed, a thin frown creasing her forehead… For several moments he lay with his desire, which had become an impersonal thing, belonging to himself alone. He spoke to Edith, as if to find a haven for what he felt; she did not answer. He put a hand upon her and felt beneath the thin cloth of her night-gown the flesh he had longed for. He moved his hand upon her; she did not stir; her frown deepened. Again he spoke, saying her name to silence; then he moved his body upon her, gentle in his clumsiness. When he touched the softness of her thighs she turned her head sharply away and lifted her arm to cover her eyes. She made no sound.’

And the next line is: ‘Afterward he lay beside her and spoke to her in the quietness of his love.’ Now John Williams can load up this passage with all the pity for Stoner that he wishes, and he can try to insist on his gentleness, but this is still a brutal act. He forces himself upon a deeply unwilling wife. As I had Mr Litlove right there to represent the male gender, I asked him what in pity’s sake made a man keep going under such dreadful circumstances,when every indication from his partner was bad?

‘Well,’ said Mr Litlove thoughtfully. ‘He’s been brought up on a farm and so he’s seen animals mating and that’s all he knows.’

‘Yes,’ i said, ‘but what about instincts? Surely he has some basic human instinct that this is NOT going well and that he ought to hold back, maybe even ask a few direct questions?’

‘Hmm,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘I guess it’s being brought up on a farm.’

So much for male insight. But as I realised that this was something that Mr Litlove didn’t understand either, I began to see an answer. Oh you can say this was a different era, when men and women didn’t have a clue and men’s conjugal rights were a thing of law. But it bothered me so, that ability of Stoner’s to persist against all odds, to keep going when he ought to try and have at least a full conversation with Edith first, on any topic, before attempting to have sex with her. And it occurred to me that intimacy was the missing factor here.

‘I said to Mr Litlove, ‘Isn’t it the case that men don’t need intimacy to have sex, whereas for a woman, sex without emotional intimacy is an insult, a violation.’

‘Oh yes,’ said Mr Litlove. ‘But after all, farmyard animals….’

In these few moments the full extent of men’s capacity for blindness to the quality of intimacy was brought home to me as never before. If they don’t need it, they don’t need to know they’re missing it, and so they may have no conception of it. So what happens next in the Stoner household? Does Stoner realise the error of his ways and attempt to get to know his wife as a whole human being? Of course not. He takes to having sex with her when she’s asleep and less resistant and he can almost pretend to himself that she quite likes it. By this point, I felt that whatever Edith might do to Stoner in the future, he deserved it.

Well, Edith decides she wants a child, but when Grace is born, she develops a kind of chronic fatigue that makes her unable to look after her. So poor old Stoner, thanks to his misunderstood, emotionally abandoned and sexually abused wife, has to work AND do the childcare. Outrageous, no? Not to mention the fate of most working mothers to this very day. A few years later, with Edith more or less recovered, and Stoner shut away in his study with Grace all the time he’s at home, Edith makes a bid to take back power of parenting. She does it in an ugly way, clearly intent on exerting the control over Grace that she has lost over her own body. Stoner has an attempt to talk to her, but by now a spell of atrophy has taken over Stoner’s common sense and the rule of ‘nothing can change’ has overwhelmed him. He fails to make Edith see reason and, fearing reprisals on the child, abandons them both to each other. If I’d been angry with Stoner before, now I was absolutely furious with him. If one parent has gone a bit crazy, you do not start abandoning your child to them because you lack the backbone and the moral fibre to stand up to their poor behaviour. But Stoner’s busy grizzling because he’s lost the space he used to research in and can’t write his book. Oh poor, kind, gentle Stoner! All he suffers!

But never fear, because no white male author will deprive his white male protagonist of what he really wants. Into Stoner’s life comes a mistress, Katherine Driscoll, a talented graduate student. Katherine is Stoner’s soulmate and wants lots of sex, which is great because then Stoner doesn’t have to learn anything about creating and maintaining relationships. They’re found out, of course, but Stoner carries on, seemingly unbothered by guilt, until his department nemesis is hellbent on causing trouble for Katherine. Now this is a shame because despite himself, Stoner is learning something about love: ‘he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.’ Now this is good stuff, hopeful and illuminating. This is a big step for mankind as represented by Stoner. But when it comes to it, and they either have to make a break for it together or split up, well, you can guess by now which Stoner chooses:

‘Because in the long run,’ Stoner said, ‘it isn’t Edith or even Grace, or the certainty of losing Grace, that keeps me here; it isn’t the scandal or the hurt to you or me; it isn’t the hardship we would have to go through, or even the loss of love we might have to face. It’s simply the destruction of ourselves, of what we do’

I’ve read this sentence many times now and I still don’t understand what Stoner means. Is he saying that they are too moral? Because that would be weird, given the public nature of the affair. Is he saying they wouldn’t get work? Because Katherine’s subsequent career refutes that. The only thing I can think of that really fits with Stoner’s behaviour is that he would have to accept change and loss, both things he has never done, except for that one moment at the start of the novel when he chose literature over the farm. It’s as if a rock has fallen in love with literature and this is so extraordinary that one can expect nothing more from it – any more would be blood out of a Stoner.

And there is nothing more to expect from Stoner. He suffers the loss of Katherine, he ages prematurely, he dies. I was left wondering to what extent we were meant to feel sorry for him. The narrative is full of compassion for Stoner, it portrays him as perpetually wronged, as being unfortunate and unlucky. But whenever I looked closely at that text, Stoner seemed to get exactly what he wanted. Throughout the novel he denies and rejects the possibility of change, choosing instead to remain with the comfy and familiar, and in doing so he denies happier lives to Edith, Grace and Katherine. And I wondered so much, oh so much, how come this novel had been so widely acclaimed in the 21st century when it is fundamentally the story of a would-be gentle man who doggedly perpetuates gender rancour?

The thing is, for me Stoner embodies white male privilege, and we endorse it if we feel sympathy for him. Stoner has been little more than adequate in everything he has done; do we really think he deserved more than he got? If Stoner’s is a sad, unjust life, then we must believe that he should be given rewards for minimal exertion, that he should not have to make sustained, prolonged effort for what is good in life, nor engage in complicated, difficult negotiations and compromises. Life is cruel, yes, but not especially so to Stoner, whose real tragedy lies in his overwhelming passivity and his inability to speak his emotional truth. Stoner has no curiosity about the emotional life of others – his own is a mystery to him – and so he has no idea of the care he might give, of the potential generosity of spirit he might embody. Instead he choses minimal responsibility and emotional cowardice, and this is what life looks like under the auspices of such choice.

 

The Last Wilderness

Nature writing is such an intriguing genre. It’s so quiet and unassuming in its PR that you might not expect it to have such an honorable and long-standing history (Thoreau, Peter Matthiesson, Nan Shephard, Barry Lopez, J. A. Baker) or the capacity to produce extraordinary narratives like Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek by Annie Dillard and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. To this day, it’s a powerful form of storytelling still, with contemporary superstars like Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. And yet unlike just about every other storytelling medium – film, television, news media and books – it eschews sensationalism and melodrama. Given that our environment is in the midst of one of the toughest of wars with mankind ever, it could be forgiven for ramping up the drama content, but no, the books I read continue to speak in the most serene of voices. Perhaps that’s precisely the charm.

Neil Ansell is the author who got me into nature writing, and so a new book of his is always an event. I know absolutely nothing about nature. I can identify a horse chestnut tree, a willow, a silver birch and probably an oak. I can point out a blackbird and a robin and a pigeon. I have a back garden with some plants in it. That’s it for me. So I never thought I would fall head over heels for the nature genre; but then I read Neil Ansell’s account of living alone in the Welsh countryside for five years, Deep Country, and was bowled over. This is what reading is all about: the invitation into an unknown world made real and vivid and inhabitable by the skill of the writing. When his second book came out, Deer Island, I made sure to secure a review copy and absorbed it in the same kind of trance as before. And now with his third, The Last Wilderness, I tried to hold back a little and understand what it is about his writing that is unique to him, and why I find it so affecting. It’s really hard to put my finger on, but over the course of this review, I’ll try.

The Last Wilderness concerns five visits taken over the course of a single year to the Rough Bounds in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, one of the few places in the British Isles to contain truly ancient wild land, almost untouched by human society.  Ansell travelled there first as a young man, just embarking on many years of rootless wandering, and he decided to revisit it now that those years may be coming to an end due to failing health. With each trip he explores a different part of the region, endures the changing seasons, battles his own body and allows the present moment to trigger a rich web of memories drawn from other travels in other times and places. What matters to him throughout his wanderings is the quality of experience.

I can see an animal in a zoo, up close and personal, and yet it feels as if it barely even counts, I can watch a television documentary, and gain an intimate insight into the private life of an animal, and yet it is no substitute for the real thing. Nothing can compare to the joy inspired by even a brief encounter with a scarce and beautiful wild animal in its natural element. It is not about what I have seen, it is about forging a momentary connection with the wild and finding a place in the world for my own wild heart.’

And forging a connection is something he continually does, often with unexpected results:

As I walked the path one scorching hot day, the air flexing in the rising heat, I saw a crow walking the path ahead of me. I kept expecting it to flush as I approached, but it never did; instead it hopped up and perched on top of my head. I felt strangely proud as I continued my way towards the harbour with my animated headdress. And then it drove its beak into the very top of my skull as if it was trying to crack a nut.’

There’s an exquisite attentiveness throughout the narrative , not just to animals but to landscape too:

An individual wood can have some intangible quality that makes it stand apart from all the other woods. This one somehow felt different from the other birch woods I had travelled through. The birch is part of a natural succession. It is quick to take hold, and it will usually be the first tree to grow on neglected land, before finally giving way to oak or whatever other tree forms the climax vegetation of the locality. Here, it was a permanent fixture. Nothing else would ever take its place; it was as though it had finally been able to step out of the shadows, out of its role as supporting act, and fulfil its true potential.’

And I also appreciated the attentiveness Ansell pays to his own authentic nature as it is shaped by his environment; the nomadic times in which ‘the shock of the new gives me an intensity of experience, a sudden depth of focus that will perhaps never be replicated’, and the settled times in which extended periods in one place allow him to ‘become gradually aware of how things are more subtle and complex than they first appeared, of how malleable and mutable is the world’. And as a person who can be entirely self-sufficient, there’s an insightful meditation on what it is to be solitary: ‘Empathy is not a zero sum game; caring about nature does not mean you care less about other people.’ The benefits of solitude are to be found in a kind of emptying out of the social ego, leading to a heightened state of sensory arousal, in which the relationship to the external world can strengthen and deepen.

If I quote extensively here, it’s because the voice feels so unusual to me in a clamouring, chattering world of rapid and mostly superficial thought. The Last Wilderness charts all manner of loss – loss of the virgin earth, untrodden and unspoiled by mankind, loss of so many species of animals, loss of Ansell’s hearing and loss of his confidence in his personal strength as he begins to suffer from an undiagnosed heart condition. But to my mind, the loss that is most striking, but which is noticeable in this book precisely because it contains so much of it, is loss of a certain state of mind. Ansell is an unusual man. He is solitary and contemplative, accepting and philosophical, non-competitive and non-materialistic, keen on simplicity but not on what is simplistic, and deeply respectful of the land and all it contains. He conjures up so much time in this book, slows down the reader’s mind, and shows us what can be accomplished with a mind that is wide open to everything in the vicinity. That state of mind is as much an endangered species as the mountain gorilla and the Siberian Tiger. Perhaps that’s why inhabiting it in a book feels very precious.

Mata Hari, We Hardly Knew You

Mata Hari must be one of the very few women in history whose name has turned into common terminology, as the spy who seduces to gain knowledge. Though as usual, for every feminist cheer, there’s an eye roll for the patriarchy, as the story surrounding this woman who found transcendent fame remains inseparable from the usual fascination with female sexuality. That Mata Hari was a prostitute with a cause, doesn’t really strike much of a blow for women’s empowerment and emancipation. How then, to tell her story in a 21st century way that honors the complexity of the woman without resorting to the creation of a false archetype of strength and agency as so many historical novels do? How to show both the force of the myth that surrounds her and the genuine desperation that created her? Richard Skinner’s novel, The Red Dancer, offers an intriguing strategy by presenting the reader with a mosaic of fictional witness accounts that all have a perspective on Mata Hari without ever solving her enigma.

The novel begins with the placement of a lonely hearts ad in an Amsterdam paper, purporting to come from one MacLeod, a captain in the Dutch army and a notorious womanizer, but really put there as a joke by his mate. The joke, typically, backfires. MacLeod finds himself taking the responses he receives seriously, especially one from a Margaretha Geertruida Zelle (whom he calls Gerda), a pretty, dark-haired woman of great charm and appeal. Macleod knows he’ll be sent out to Indonesia soon and that having a wife would be a good thing. And so they get engaged within six days of meeting, and marry within four months. Then things go horribly wrong. MacLeod is keen on drink and violence, Gerda is a flirt who wants to spend all his money on dresses. They have two children, move to the Dutch East Indies, and drive each other a little bit insane. On their return to Europe, MacLeod deserts Gerda, who heads to Paris and then to Pigalle, the red-light district, recommended to her as a woman with no money and no choices. She finds work as an artist’s model and then as an exotic dancer, a move that will make her name.

From this point on, Mata Hari – self-christened, meaning ‘Eye of the Dawn’ – is in this account as complicit in the myth-making as the journalists and writers who spread over-excited reports of her. Basically, Mata Hari made her name by dancing naked, but coupling it with the notion that her movements were sacred Brahman dances lent a veneer of, well, not respectability exactly, but something more poetic and pure. Colette (who had herself danced strip-teases of a kind on the Parisian stage) watched her with clear, cold eyes, and produced this account:

She hardly danced in the real sense at all. She arrived fairly naked at her recitals, and with graceful movements and downcast eyes shed her clothes, and would then disappear enveloped in her veils… Her skin amber by night, seemed mauve by daylight, but patchy from artificial dyeing. She moved her long, thin and proud body as Paris has never seen one moved before. Paris swallowed her, and raved about her chaste nudity, retelling anecdotes that Mata Hari had uttered about her hot Asiatic past. She was invited everywhere, men fought to pay her way.’

She claimed to have been born in India, to be related to royalty (both Indian and British), to have studied her dances by way of cults and sacred ritual, to have performed before rajahs, all of which was so much nonsense. But her position, both financially and within society, was a precarious one. Her dancing began to receive poor reviews and, as the First World War loomed, Mata Hari was taken on by the Berlin police intelligence services and used her talents the way she always had. It was, in short, another rackety career, with even less security than she had achieved before, and it ended the way these things inevitably will – in front of a firing squad for treason.

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.

Interspersed with these fictional accounts are the most divisive feature of the narrative: brief non-fiction chapters that explain and describe an extraordinary hotch-potch of cultural artefacts, including the gamelan (a Javanese musical instrument), lithography, absinthe, the Orient Express and the start of the First World War. It’s an audacious strategy that I think is intended to remind the reader of the inescapable history behind the story, and to anchor the fictional accounts in the relics of the times. They add a real taste of the cultural era to the narrative, and accent the dizzying perspective that moves us rapidly between the carapace of Mata Hari’s myth and the reality of the Belle Epoque. But some readers are going to find themselves uncomfortably jarred out of the story when they appear.

Overall this is a fascinating account of a historical figure whom we all know without knowing about in the least. The Red Dancer refuses to resolve this problem, preferring to magnify it instead, which is perhaps the truest way of approaching the story of woman who worked myth for all it was worth, until it finally destroyed her.