Matrix by Lauren Groff review: Nunnery life made sexy in a radical departure for Groff

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Lauren Groff’s new novel takes us back to Medieval England: a damp island of survival and superstition, where the weak are pariahs and punishments are gruesome. Set in a 12th century convent, it’s told through the eyes of Marie de France, a French-born poet who presided over an English abbey. Little is known of her life – fertile territory for fiction – but her multilingualism indicates aristocratic origins. Famous for her influential Breton lais – narrative poems of courtly love written in Anglo-Norman – she is considered the first woman to write francophone verse.

Matrix affirms Groff’s originality. The American author’s bestselling previous book Fates and Furies narrated a marriage from two divergent perspectives and was Barack Obama’s favourite novel of 2015. A departure, then, to tackle a cash-strapped medieval convent.

Yet the convent novel has form. Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus, recently adapted by the BBC, follows a mission of nuns in an isolated Himalayan palace; Groff’s Abbess Marie has shades of Godden’s ambitious Sister Clodagh. What, after all, is a nunnery, but a microcosm of human nature? In Matrix, it is both cage and cocoon – just one form of captivity in a patriarchal society where female freedom is impossible.

The story opens in 1158, as seventeen-year-old Marie rides miserably to her fate. She has been dispatched by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, from King Henry II’s court at Westminster to a rural abbey (probably Shaftesbury). A towering, ungainly misfit, this ‘bastardess half sister to the crown’ (many believe Marie de France to have been the illegitimate daughter of Geoffrey Plantagenet) is mocked and condemned by the queen – the object of Marie’s slavish idolatry – to a life of holy celibacy.

Marie arrives to find starvation, the ageing abbess having failed to collect tenants’ debts. Desperate for release, Marie composes her lais and sends them to court for the king’s perusal; met with silence, she’s forced to accept her lot, resolving to ‘make those who cast her out sorry for what they’ve done. One day they will see the majesty she holds within herself and feel awe.’ The novel traces her rapid ascent to abbess and transformation of the abbey to the richest in the land.

But wealth fosters resentment, and soon Marie takes transgressive steps to defend her ‘island of women’ from external threats.

Groff explores the addictive nature of power, and the incompatibility of humility with the church’s hierarchical institutions. Marie has a modern outlook, with little time for pious abasement. A born capitalist, she takes pride in hard work’s rewards. Using divine visions to justify her growing autocracy, she constructs a labyrinth to make her realm impregnable, but when she, a woman, starts saying mass, there are shocked murmurs of sacrilege. How far can hubris take her before she falls?

In erecting ‘walls of wealth and friends and good clear reputation’ around herself, Marie models herself on Queen Eleanor, whose alluring, steely aloofness is vividly drawn. Medieval society is ruled by Church and State, and they are the two estates’ most powerful women. Eleanor gifts Marie a matrix – a seal engraved with the latter’s likeness. Matrix has a double meaning; the archaic definition is uterus. Eleanor births many children yet denies Marie motherhood, instead giving her the abbey: a womb where she protects her ‘frail sisters’.

You might imagine a nun’s life to be devoid of sensuality, yet Groff begs us look again, evoking sex and nature in luminous prose. She skilfully treads the line between archaism and accessibility (keep Google handy and expect to expand your medieval vocab), only faltering in Marie’s visions, which are strangely unreadable. The omniscient third-person narrative is sometimes close to Marie’s consciousness, sometimes grandly prophetic, foreshadowing events right up to today’s climate crisis. Despite the intense present tense, the lack of direct dialogue has a distancing effect; Matrix could have done with more speech and less description – and more on Marie’s literary output.

Yet this is a remarkable novel: unusual, profound, transcendental. Amidst the current abundance of mythological retellings, Groff’s Marie de France stands out as a unique figure from a neglected period. Groff deploys impressive inventiveness and research to imagine a life that probes questions still relevant today – of power, pride, faith, creativity and community.

Matrix by Lauren Groff (William Heinemann, £16.99)

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