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Lauren Groff

Born from a long line of female warriors and crusaders, yet too coarse, too wild, too rough-hewn for 12th-century courtly life, Marie de France is cast from the royal court. To her dismay, she is sent to the muddy fields of Angleterre to take up her new duty as the prioress of an impoverished abbey.

The abbey is a dreadful place: its inhabitants are on the brink of starvation, beset by disease, stoic and stern, yet plagued with an unholy tendency to gossip. Marie cannot help but pine for the decadence and comfort of France; her secret lover Cecily, her queen Eleanor, and the very court that had spited her.

Yet Marie soon realises that, though she may be tied to a life of duty, she wields more power than she could have imagined. With the fearlessness that has always set her apart, she inspires her new sisterhood to awaken their spirits and finally claim what is theirs.

A dazzling work of literature, Matrix gathers currents of violence, sensuality and ecstasy in a mesmerising portrait of consuming passion and womanhood.


Scour the formal historical record and you won’t find much about the woman known as Marie de France beyond information that she lived in the 12th century and wrote a series of Breton lais, or short romantic rhymes. But in her latest novel, Lauren Groff generously imagines a complete, alternative life thrashing inside those silences. Matrix is a bold feminist tale of what Marie’s life might have looked, smelled and felt like.

It’s 1158, and Marie, the 17-year-old illegitimate daughter of Henry II, is banished from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine to head an abbey on the fringes of England. Marie is decreed unfit for marriage – ‘three heads too tall’ and too ugly for royal life. To complicate matters further, she’s in love with the queen. Arriving at the abbey, Marie finds infertile lands and nuns sick and starving. She despairs. But resourceful, ambitious Marie is in the right place: her warrior-like strength of heart and body allows her to wrestle the defenceless abbey back from the brink. Across 50 years it prospers with Marie, its matrix – Latin for mother – binding it all together. Within the convent walls, Groff focuses on the women’s working lives. Beyond prayer and song, we see nuns weaving, baking, writing, farming and eventually engineering and building a world totally their own – ‘an island of women’ and a refuge from the chaos brewing outside. Presenting the abbey as a source of female power, creativity and desire, Groff avoids imposing modern paradigms onto this unenlightened era. Marie’s legacy, her prideful push for power, is depicted as flawed and more interesting for it.

I loved Groff’s 2015 novel Fates and Furies, but Matrix is a very different creature, and in my opinion, a superior one – a dazzling, primeval story of love, sex, power, community and care. Matrix glows with the fierce fire of sisterhood, like the one Marie’s ‘daughters’ see burning inside her. It’s one of the best novels of the year. Amen.

Joanna Di Mattia is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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