Lauren Groff is one of a handful of authors whom I will happily read anything by. I had not even glanced at the blurb of her 2021 novel, Matrix, before borrowing it from my library. It came as something of a surprise to me that this is a work of historical fiction, given that her previous books have been so rooted in the contemporary world. It is safe to say that my hopes for Matrix were very high indeed.
The protagonist of Matrix is seventeen-year-old Marie, a young woman living in the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, the Queen of France. Marie, who is loosely based on a twelfth-century poet named Marie de France, is a ‘bastardess sibling of the crown’. She has proved ‘too wild for courtly life’, and is swiftly despatched to an abbey in the north of England. On a cold morning in the winter of 1158, Marie is expelled from the life she has known, and sent away from her secret lover, Cecily. Cecily is ‘… this rough person who had up until this moment been everything to Marie, mistress and sister and servant and pleasure and single loving soul in all of Angleterre.’
Marie is forced to become the abbey’s prioress, despite not believing in any higher power. She finds the religion bestowed upon her ‘vaguely foolish… Her faith had twisted very early in her childhood; it would slowly grow ever more bent into its geography until it was its own angular, majestic thing.’ After she has lived there for around two decades, Groff writes that her faith has shifted entirely: ‘How strange, she thinks. Belief has grown upon her. Perhaps, she thinks, it is something like a mold.’ One of the many strengths in this novel is the portrait which Groff draws of a woman forced against her will into a way of life, and the ways in which she copes with, and adapts to, it.
In the opening scene, Marie arrives at her new home: ‘She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the rich soil, but now in late winter, all is grey and full of shadows.’ The young woman is ‘tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly… Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked.’ She has been sent to the desolate, neglected abbey during a raging epidemic of one disease or another, which has caused many of the nuns there to perish. The nuns are viewed with suspicion by those who live around the abbey; the townsfolk see them as ‘suspect, unnatural, sisters to witches.’
Over the decades which she spends at the abbey, Marie is nothing short of radical. She looks after the women around her, and comes up with bold new ideas to turn the struggling abbey into a profitable place. This element of the novel in particular will appeal to any feminist; she is a strong woman surrounded by others who become stronger under her direction. She becomes, for the abbey, an agent of change. As Groff says, ‘Her mastery will be gradual but, by the time she becomes abbess many years later, complete.’ She makes renters settle their debts; she sets up a scriptorium where the more educated nuns produce beautiful manuscripts, which can then be sold; she persuades nobles to donate the land around the abbey to the nuns.
The narrative here has been wonderfully controlled. I liked the way in which Groff wove in explorations of feminism, particularly within the female-only space of the abbey. Marie, for instance, grapples with her sexuality throughout, as do others around her. Groff writes: ‘There is no mention of female sodomy in any of the books, and the great angry moralists would have mentioned it if it were a sin, surely. Marie has searched; she has found only echoing silence.’
I do not believe that I’ve read another novel quite like Matrix. It is inventive in true Groff style, and I know that the story and its wonderfully drawn characters and scenes will stay with me for quite some time yet. The novel is wonderfully rich in detail, and I was pulled right into its story. The historical context which Groff provides is at once vague and detailed, and altogether, the story which has been told here is thoroughly beguiling. I really like the way in which Groff captures what was going on in the world whilst the nuns were cloistered away; for instance, when she writes: ‘Marie is forty-seven. From Rome, from Paris, from London, her spies have written swift panicked letters; Jerusalem has fallen again to the infidel.’ Groff has put such thought into how to make this world as realistic and believable as possible.
I love it when I have the chance to read a book by an author which proves a real departure from their previous publications. Matrix is definitely this for Groff. Whilst it is recognisably her work, there is definitely a different feel to it overall. The magical realism which her other novels and short stories are steeped in is barely visible here, only appearing in a couple of ‘visions’ which the nuns have. These small glimpses work wonderfully with the realism which the rest of the story is suffused in. The scenes which she has implanted magical realism into are few and far between, but also beautiful: ‘Lightning sparks at the tip of her fingers. Swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and it settles jagged and blazing in her throat. Wondrous colors bloom in the sky above the forest. With a thunder that shakes the ground beneath Marie’s feet, there is a split in the sky that opens. In the split Marie sees a woman made of the greatness of all the cities in the world together, a woman clothed in radiance.’
Time passes quickly in Matrix, and I enjoyed every second. It was not the novel which I was expecting, but I thoroughly admired the way in which Groff tackles so many topics here; it is a novel of religion, sexuality, bonds, friendship, and female power, amongst much else. She has created a stylish and playful work of historical fiction, which feels fresh and exciting. Matrix is undoubtedly a very clever book, and I am so excited to see what Groff comes up with next.