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Review: Matrix, by Lauren Groff
Riverhead, 2021. 257 pp. $28

In 1158, Queen Eleanor of England removes seventeen-year-old Marie from her court at Westminster and dispatches her as prioress to a struggling abbey. Having managed a family estate in Maine, a French province bordering Normandy and Brittany, Marie is judged to be just the person to turn the abbey into a moneymaker. Besides, the queen says, with Marie’s deep voice, huge hands, and taste for disputation, she has no feminine charm or art whatsoever, so who’d marry her?

History knows little of Marie de France, as she called herself, aside from her narrative poems set in Brittany with chivalric and fairy-tale themes, and her fables about animals. But Groff, in what must rank among the most original and vivid novels I have ever read, has reimagined Marie’s life as a feminist heroine who turns her painful banishment into unheard-of success. Deploying considerable political and social gifts, Marie attempts not only to put the abbey on sound financial footing, creating a beehive of productive activity, she aims for nothing less than making the place an island unto itself, not just free of men but of male influence altogether.

Marie de France, from an illuminated manuscript attributed to Richard of Verdun (courtesy Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Paris, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States)

Talk about a fairytale! These are the Middle Ages, when women have no say in anything, and even to suggest otherwise invites accusations of witchcraft or heresy. But Groff knows exactly what she’s doing, and she establishes this threat alongside Marie’s campaigns for freedom; as the abbey grows wealthy, enemies gather. I particularly admire how the narrative subtly employs a historical parallel between the real queen and the fictive yet plausible prioress. Eleanor, as duchess of Aquitaine, bride to two kings, mother of two others, and a political force into her dotage makes an excellent foil for Marie, whose aspirations are both greater and lesser.

Marie, who loves Eleanor and aches from her dismissal, hopes to impress her mentor and regain her favor, hence both the poems and the efforts to increase income for the crown. Marie therefore has one eye on the temporal world, the other on matters of the soul, yet carries an intense desire for approval, a depiction allowing for compelling personal and public stakes. The setup also permits Marie to receive Eleanor’s half-admiring warnings about the dangers she’s running in a world controlled by men.

Further, Groff expertly fleshes out Marie’s biography, casting her as an illegitimate child of royal rape, which has repercussions throughout the story. (The text implies that the rapist was Stephen, the Plantagenet king eventually succeeded by Henry II, Eleanor’s future second husband.) As an infant, Marie accompanied her mother on Crusade, which gives her needed cachet at the abbey — you can imagine the nuns wonder how a seventeen-year-old can presume lead them. They don’t wonder long.

But the real genius of Matrix involves the re-creation of medieval thought and belief regarding the use and abuse of power, the difference between human goodness and a leader’s greatness, how civilizations rise and fall, and a woman’s place in making history. Marie has visions, ornate religious dramas whose recounting conveniently allow her to promote schemes otherwise considered heretical. But she also explores the emotional and moral spaces where no one else even thinks to go. For instance, when she comforts a bellowing cow whose calf has been taken from her, her physical bond with the beast makes her wonder if that’s the closest she’s come to seeing God.

From the first line, the prose will spirit you away. Take any passage you like — any — but for argument’s sake, consider this one, when Marie intends to send her poems to Eleanor:

She will send her manuscript as a blazing arrow toward her love, and when it strikes, it will set that cruel heart on fire. Eleanor will relent. Marie will be allowed back to the court, to the place where none ever starve, and there is always music and dogs and birds and life, when at dusk the gardens are full of lovers and flowers and intrigue, where Marie can practice her languages and hear in the halls the fiery tails of new ideas shooting through conversations. Not just the tripartite god of parent and child and ghost who is talked about here, not all this endless work and prayer and hunger.

How Marie surrenders this fantasy to adopt the daily task of tending the women around her so that they realize their true natures and abilities makes stirring fiction. (She struggles hard but subtly against what men have said about women; note that in this narrative, the word god is never capitalized.) The title, a clever play on words, suggests what Groff is after. At the abbey, the healer, for instance, is the infirmatrix, and the scribe, the scriptorix. So it follows that the mother is the matrix, which also means “originator.” You may take that figuratively or literally.

Matrix is a finalist for the National Book Award. Next week, we’ll find out whether it’s the winner, but either way, read this novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.