Matrix by Lauren Groff

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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Lauren Groff

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