Matrix by Lauren Groff: ‘An island of women’

Cover image for Matrix by Lauren GroffI’ve written about my ambivalence towards Lauren Groff’s writing before in a review of her last novel, Fates and Furies, back in 2015 and so when Matrix arrived I wasn’t at all sure about reading it, even more so given its twelfth-century setting. Groff’s novel is her reimagining of the life of Marie de France, sent from the court at Westminster by her beloved queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, to be prioress of an abbey in the west of England.

The queen told Marie to have faith, in time Marie would make a rather good nun. Anyone with eyes could see she had always been meant for holy virginity

Marie is in love with the beautiful Eleanor who consigns this ugly, lanky and illegitimate seventeen-year-old with royal blood running through her veins to an impoverished abbey whose nuns are starving and desperate. Marie arrives on horseback, a striking figure, who must complete her novitiate before taking on the duties of a prioress as required by her queen. She has no belief in God, is angry and wants nothing more than to return to court but she’s accomplished and practical, the niece of fearless, crusading women who took her to Jerusalem as a child. An astute politician and shrewd businesswoman, she restores the abbey’s fortunes sufficiently to attract the attention of the diocesan authorities. She wins both loyalty and fear from the women she regards as her daughters who stifle their doubts and worries about the projects provoked by her visions, not least the construction of a labyrinth designed to cut the abbey off from worldly threats which almost bankrupts it again. Marie lives a long life, one of towering achievements, underpinned by a constant, patient passion for her queen, seemingly unafraid to court charges of heresy, believing strongly in the power of women.

And they could stay on this piece of earth where the place has always stood but her daughters would be removed, enclosed, safe. They would be self-sufficient, entire until themselves

Matrix couldn’t be more different from Fates and Furies or The Monsters of Templeton both in subject and style. As far as I can tell, little is known about the life of Marie de France apart from her four books on which Groff has built this vibrant portrait of a strong and powerful woman who defied the church’s teachings, a feminist lover of women and a pragmatic visionary. Marie’s vivid story is told in almost stately prose, very different from the extravagant bagginess of Fates and Furies and sometimes quite beautiful, lit with flashes of gentle humour. Given my reluctance to read historical fiction – yet again I’ve been proved wrong on that one – and wariness about that baggy style, I’m surprised at how much I loved this accomplished piece of storytelling. So much so, I added it to my Booker wish list at the last minute, a wish not fulfilled, of course.

Hutchinson Books: London 9781785151903 288 pages Hardback

28 thoughts on “Matrix by Lauren Groff: ‘An island of women’”

  1. This seems like quite a departure for the author but your review has got me interested in it. I’m always drawn to stories that bring the lives of women out of the shadows and, unlike you, I love my historical fiction. So yet another book you’ve made me add to my wishlist

  2. This sounds very intriguing. I don’t mind historical fiction as long as it’s believable and historically accurate. With such a long ago period in history, it must be hard to achieve that.

      1. I see! Thank you. I prefer lean writing as well.
        I only recently discovered this site, by the way, and I’m really enjoying the reviews.

  3. One I’m really looking forward to especially as it sounds like she’s taken a page from Hilary Mantel’s method of carefully researching and then writing into the gaps, but then I love (good) historical fiction.

    1. She certainly brings Marie alive in the way that Mantel does with Cromwell. Lots more gaps to write into from what I can gather but she does that beautifully. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

  4. It’s amazing to me that a writer can write such different books. I wonder what drew her to this character and if she found it more or less challenging to write than contemporary? Marcie has also recommended this one, so I’ve got it on my list!

    1. I’ll be interested to see what you both think of it if you decide to review it, Naomi. Even when her writing doesn’t hit the spot for me, there’s no doubting Groff’s versatility. This one is extraordinarily good.

  5. You haven’t discussed the one element that I was surprised to find in this story, part of nunnery life that I didn’t think would figure in her story (I still won’t say, because I loved “discovering” it and it really worked to build out characters…but I think you’ll guess). I read and reread everything she’s written, in order to write this piece: https://chireviewofbooks.com/2021/09/13/on-lauren-groffs-work-including-new-novel-matrix-from-riverhead/ Hope you don’t mind my sharing, would love to know your thoughts given that you’ve read her before!

    1. Not at all. Your piece is such an interesting assessment of Groff’s work, identifying thematic threads that bind her books together in ways I’d not spotted. I was particularly struck by the reference to nuns you quoted in
      Florida’s ‘Ghosts and Empires’. I wonder if she was researching Matrix when she wrote that. Thanks, Marcie!

  6. Great review! I didn’t like Fates and Furies so paid little attention to this new book. I didn’t even know what it was about so I’m a bit more intrigued now to hear how different from Groff’s other work it is.

    1. Thanks, Karissa. I didn’t expect to even finish this one before I picked it up having grudgingly agreed to give it a try but it’s now heading for my books of the year list!

  7. The themes of this do sound interesting but I think I would have overlooked it – your review has me convinced! Your description of the writing style is very appealing, sometimes I associate historical fiction with bagginess because writers seem (understandably) reluctant to let go of all their hard work researching the topic.

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