Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, 17-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.
At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions.
Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?
You know that feeling when you pick up a book, read the first page, and are just instantly transported? Well, that’s how I felt when I started reading Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Matrix. From the moment I started the novel, I was instantly transported into the life – and mind – of the extraordinary Marie de France: a woman who, in reality, historians know remarkably little about.
From Marie’s literary legacy – much of it still tentatively attributed – of remarkable lais, translations, and religious writings, Lauren Groff has created a complex, vivacious, and remarkable depiction of 12th century womanhood as, in Matrix, we follow her from resentful teenager, cast out from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, to visionary abbess of one of the most powerful abbeys in Angleterre.
As the illegitimate daughter of a powerful man and a strident, unconventional mother, Groff’s Marie is a woman too large for the times in which she lives – both in terms of her tall, broad stature, and the fiery cast of her brilliant mind. Her family tree is filled with ‘difficult’ women: crusading aunts, a fiercely intelligent grandmother, and, far back in the legendary past, the fairy woman, Melusine. To Eleanor of Aquitaine – herself a woman no stranger to power, intelligence, and latent cunning – Marie has a potential that, whilst admirable, poses a threat to the crown that must be contained. But, in casting her out, Eleanor provides Marie with the perfect arena on which to imprint her powerful personality.
Groff has evocatively depicted the rhythms of life in an English nunnery during the twelfth century. From the lean years of starvation, with their ever-present threat of deadly illness, to the serenity of a well-fed, well-tended community of women, bound together by their promises to both their faith and to each other, every page felt like being pulled into the past. And, by the end of the novel, these women – Infirmatrix Nest, Sub-Prioress Goda, Baliff Wulfhild – felt like beloved friends and relatives; their tribulations, woes, and joys my own.
The word ‘matrix’ has multiple meanings and Groff plays with all of them deftly. From the community of women that Marie builds around her to the idea of the ‘mat-rix’: the mother as leader, Groff has clearly delighted in playing with the ideas generated by the word, and in showing how Marie herself encompasses its multiple meanings throughout her life.
In addition to being a novel of female community, Matrix is also a novel of female love. At the centre of this is Marie’s relationship with Eleanor; whom she both loves and loathes from afar and whose life, in many ways, mirrors Marie’s own. Theirs is a love story of unconventional expression but, for Groff, a love story nonetheless. There is also physical love in the form of relationships with Marie’s fellow nuns – whether in the form of sexual gratification or familial bonding – and the spiritual love between Marie and her religious namesake, the Virgin Mary.
It is hard to encapsulate just what I found so enthralling about Matrix – the books I love the most are, often, the ones I find the hardest to write about – but I hope I’ve conveyed the incredibly layered nature of this rich and complex novel. Though slight in length, Groff has created a masterpiece in miniature in Matrix: a richly detailed and compelling story of the multiplicity of female experience that has continued to resonate long after I turned the final page.
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My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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