Book Review

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Seventeen-year-old Marie, too wild for courtly life, is thrown to the dogs one winter morning, expelled from the royal court to become the prioress of an abbey. Marie is strange – tall, a giantess, her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly.

At first taken aback by life at the abbey, Marie finds purpose and passion among her mercurial sisters. Yet she deeply misses her secret lover Cecily and queen Eleanor.

Born last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, women who flew across the countryside with their sword fighting and dagger work, Marie decides to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. She will bring herself, and her sisters, out of the darkness, into riches and power.

MATRIX is a bold vision of female love, devotion and desire from one of the most adventurous writers at work today.

Matrix is an unusual novel, but it’s one that I found to be strangely and unexpectedly compelling.  Set in the twelfth century, it’s a fictionalised account of the life of Marie de France.  Going into this, I knew nothing of this individual.  I had heard of her, but knew next to nothing about her.  So it’s hard to say with any certainty how much of this is fact rather than fiction, although record keeping being what it was back then, I expect that there were some rather significant gaps to fill.  In short, I would take this as a fictional tale that happens to feature one of two people that you might have heard of rather than a novel that has a strong basis in historical fact. 

We first meet Marie in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Marie is an illegitimate relative of the crown, born out of wedlock after her mother was assaulted.  Deemed too large and unattractive to make an advantageous match, Marie is – much to her horror – assigned to an unnamed abbey in Angleterre, a situation made worse by the state of abject poverty in which she finds the abbey upon her arrival, the sisters starving and disease-ridden.  There’s a period of denial as Marie adjusts to her circumstances, and yet she soon begins to show her intelligence, seeing how she might turn around the fortunes of the abbey.  Through hard work, determination, and not a little intimidation of those expected to provide to the abbey – she begins to improve matters for all, ensuring that the sisters are well-fed and eventually renovating and building as the years go by. 

Marie is a quite a character – bold and ambitious, she’s not afraid to ignore the edicts of Papal Rome when they don’t suit her. Her approach seems to be one of common sense at a time when religious fervour and fear kept everyone in check.  It may not be authentic – I struggle with the idea that she had quite as much freedom and power as is suggested here – but it makes for a cracking story.  Marie is able to create a safe environment for the women in her care – the servants as well as the sisters – when it’s needed, not subscribing to the notion held at the time that the fault lies solely with the woman in cases of assault.  With victim-blaming still an issue today, Marie proves herself to be truly ahead of her time in this regard. 

Marie – perhaps because she has been found wanting in the ideals of feminine beauty – is also big on equality, and takes in all who come to her, judging each on their individual skills and allowing their strengths to flourish.

For this community is precious, there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult, in this enclosure there is love enough here even for the most unlovable of women.

The one thing that Marie won’t accept is insubordination, and we see her deal swiftly and elegantly with a potential usurper who begins to undermine Marie.  It’s a moment of light-heartedness within the narrative, and a moment that gives the reader insight into the cunning mind of the abbess. 

As Marie ages and the abbey flourishes under her leadership, she begins to build and expand, her visions leading her to build a labyrinth for protection from invasion as well as a dam.  This does, unfortunately, involve the destruction of natural habitats through the need for space and building materials and we see the impact this has on local fauna as nests, dens etc. are destroyed to make way for Marie’s ambitions. 

so much has already been swallowed under the surface, the grasses, the nests where the rare marsh birds live, the snake dens, the beaver dams. The last living exemplar of strange red salamander found only in this damp place is chased away from its hibernation nest and perishes, its guts pecked open by a bird.

I took this to be indicative of the impact that humans have on the natural world as we seek to build and expand.  We often associate climate change and the destruction of the natural world with the industrial revolution and beyond, and while this period saw huge changes, it would seem that we have been making our mark for much longer than that. 

In some ways, Matrix can be seen as a thought-experiment as we see these women live and flourish without men.  Anything that needs doing falls to these women, and they thrive despite the challenges they face, supporting one another throughout.  It’s a novel that – for me – explores many present day issues through the lens of historical fiction, and in particular showing what women are capable of.  I found it thought-provoking in its consideration of issues such as gender-politics and same-sex relationships – presented without judgement – and overall found it to be a fascinating read. 

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