I’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