Lauren Groff’s new novel, Matrix, reads as a long elegant hymn sang during High Mass. The prose is rich and confident right from the start when Queen Eleanor banishes Marie de France from the royal court to an impoverished abbey, where hope dies along with around twenty sickly, suffering nuns headed by the blind Abbess Emme.
Marie de France has had an unfortunate childhood, a bastardess formed of rape, she pretended to be her mother long after her mother died so that she would not be stripped of the family’s estate. Her appearance described as large and unwomanly was of no benefit to the royal court seeking to consolidate power through advantageous marriages. Marie tried, at first, to get back on the Queen’s good graces, but after her efforts were met with indifference, she resolved to make the best life forced on her.
From a powerless prioress, she buckled up to work. She fixed the abbey’s financial books and reclaimed rents due to the convent from the squatters of their land. Abbess Emme who was more inclined to a song rather than the affairs of the estate left the convent in such disarray that when Marie arrived it was on the brink of death and collapse. When Abbess Emme died, Marie assumed the role of the abbess and the visions of the Virgin Mary came. Through the visions she claimed was from the heavens, she instructed her nuns to construct a labyrinth to protect them from the outside world and, slowly, what once was an impoverished convent became a thriving estate, where the charities they gave to the poor were things that the well-off could barely afford.
News of their prosperity reached Queen Eleanor who reminded Marie that such acts angered Marie’s enemies. Nobles were willing to storm the convent with an army and strip the nuns of the place. But Marie never listened. Instead, she continued to extend her power, even donning the cloth for saying Mass, much to the chagrin of the more conservative nuns in the abbey.
Lauren Groff has crafted a lyrical tale of a historical figure whose life was mostly unknown except for her written works. If you search the Internet for Marie de France, there’s not much about her except the Lais she wrote, which in this story she sent to Queen Eleanor as a token of love. The novel does not so much as fill the gap as it imagines an entirely plausible life of Marie de France. Groff’s prose remakes what little we know of Marie de France and transforms her into a strong, compelling character. Marie’s internal life, her sexual desires, and her struggles with women’s roles during her time are as thrilling as her visions for the convent.
Similar to her previous award-winning work, Fates and Furies, Groff has masterfully created a precise and brilliant world. Whereas Fates and Furies was about the internal world of a married couple and their dissonant voices, Matrix is about the world inside a monastic abbey. You might think there’s nothing interesting about a story set entirely in an abbey, but you’d be wrong. The book possesses a sublime hook that pulls you into their world that is sometimes tragic and other times comic. There’s internal politics, petty jealousies, a wild novice who got pregnant (with some nuns utterly clueless how it could’ve happened), and even action as the nuns fight enemies off their labyrinthine land. Also, for a supposedly serene life, there’s a lot of blood—whether they’re from the animals of the land, comic accidents, or violent and sometimes absurd deaths.
It’s a captivating read as Marie continues to succeed and get her visions done despite the many challenges and setbacks. She was not just ahead of her time, she was a visionary who accumulated power with the help of the nuns around her. You cannot help but applaud.
The title derives itself from the personal seal matrix that Queen Eleanor gifted to Marie, which was a symbol of “delicious and forbidden privacy.” It means that Marie is granted her own voice to think and make her own decisions, which, in an abbey, was against the Rule. The matrix is a symbol to “challenge the internal voice and press it forward.” Monastic life was designed to be communal, where even reading was done out loud to stop the internal voices from taking over. Free-thinking was considered dangerous. Thus, the seal matrix represents Marie’s freedom to think, to stretch her mind to the farthest horizon, and ask the questions that needed to be asked. It was a symbol of unbridled freedom in a time when women’s voices were suppressed and stifled into submission and prayers.
Chris Daniel has written on Wattpad, yellowpads, and notepads. A few of his articles are in the dusty archives of Inquirer’s Youngblood and Philippine Star’s My Favorite Book, while one story got lost among the Kindles on Amazon. He works as a Systems Administrator by day and a recluse at night. You can reach him on Twitter @cd_loza and Instagram @danmloza.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]