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Matrix by Lauren Groff review – a brilliant nun’s tale | Fiction

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The author of Fates and Furies has been much acclaimed, especially in the US, for sharp yet exuberant writing about contemporary marriage, parenthood, sexual rivalry and the threats that lie in the midst of daily routines. Now, in an appealingly unpredictable move, Lauren Groff has turned her attentions to 12th-century English nuns. The result is a highly distinctive novel of great vigour and boldness. From mystical visions that may or may not be divine, to the earthy business of abbey pigs, diseases and account books, Groff does it all with purpose and panache.

We meet protagonist Marie emerging from a forest on horseback, like a knight errant at the start of a medieval romance – except not, because she’s a young woman, it’s a drizzling March day and “the world bears the weariness of late Lent”. She has been ejected from court by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine: “thrown to the dogs”, or at least sent off to be prioress at a remote royal abbey. Appalled by the prospect ahead, agonised by leaving her devoutly loved Eleanor behind, she goes to her doom. “Her old warhorse glumly plods along.”

Matrix is a very free imagining of the life of Marie de France. Almost nothing is known about this pioneering poet except what she tells us, with a self-assertion unusual for her time and gender, in her collection of Breton lais, or romances, and translations of Aesop’s fables. She was probably writing in England, though she came from northern France. Her poetry gives no indication that she belonged to a religious house, though she has been tentatively identified with Mary, abbess of Shaftesbury. Groff seizes on the few hints, rides cantering into the huge gaps, and makes up a life for Marie – a long and full life as a visionary leader, queer lover, writer and mother, or “matrix”, to a thriving community of women.

The future does not look auspicious for Groff’s Marie when she arrives among half-starving sisters in a “stinking mud-befouled corner of Angleterre”. Anywhere in England is bad enough, but “even for England this is pathetic”. Cecily, her maid and lover at court, has refused to live among nuns who pray so much they are “up and down all day, like marmots”. Furious, lonely, sensually hungry, Marie begins to apply herself to improving the lot of her new community. Over the next five decades, as prioress and then abbess, she will enact her increasingly extravagant plan for a female utopia.

As in Groff’s earlier fiction, we are carried on the force of her style, and held by the strength of an intelligence that lets comedy and emotional complexity work together. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1948 novel The Corner That Held Them is a hard act to follow when it comes to modern takes on medieval convent society. But Groff shares many of Townsend Warner’s qualities – lightning wit, political acuity, delight in idiosyncratic character – and one feels a kind of continuity between them.

Groff’s way of working with history is often to revise it with intent. Marie dedicated her lais to a “noble king”, presumably Henry II; her fictional counterpart writes the poems for Eleanor, sending the collection as a “blazing arrow” towards her. The literary conventions of courtly love are shrewdly redeployed so that instead of a knight stricken with love for an unreachable and closely guarded woman, we have gallant, fierce, undefeated Marie offering her soul to the queen. The surviving lais of Marie de France turn on images of female imprisonment; Groff’s invented Marie overleaps restrictions while also embracing forms of collective discipline. She won’t be trapped like those ladies at court who never think of “galloping through fields … nor swimming naked in a river”. This warrior woman with her sleeves rolled up is not walled in but in charge of wall-building.

“I wanted to get as far away from Trump’s America as possible,” Groff has said. But this is not historical fiction as an escape route from the present. It is an assertively modern novel about leadership, ambition and enterprise, and about the communal life of individuals. Is Marie right to collect rents from impoverished tenants? Why do the nuns not push back against her domination of the abbey? “For it is a deep and human truth,” we are told by a narrator who is partly Marie, that most people want to feel “safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves”. Groff refuses easy feminist wins: Marie takes on the role of priest but without the balance to see that the boss should not also be hearing her underlings’ confessions.

Lauren Groff: ‘I wanted to get as far away from Trump’s America as possible.’
Lauren Groff: ‘I wanted to get as far away from Trump’s America as possible.’ Photograph: Sophie Bassouls

The emphasis on women’s working lives (rarely a strong point in medieval romance) is among the novel’s most striking aspects. Specialist nuns weave and bake, Goda runs the farm, insane Gytha is painting wild scenes in the margins of manuscripts. The beautiful Welsh sister, Nest, has her work cut out at the infirmary, which is also an apothecary, dentist’s surgery and old people’s home. There is no shortage here of women pursuing careers in engineering, and the building project in hand is as grandiose and ecologically damaging as HS2.

There is blessedly little lecturing and moralising in Matrix. It won’t tell us whether Marie’s utopia is a triumph of creativity and love, or a greedy corporation with a CEO high on her own charisma, or an absolutist state, or nothing more than “a queer little English abbey hiding behind its maze”. It may be all those things, but we can still agree with Marie when she reflects that “there is a place here even for the maddest, for the discarded, for the difficult”. Those who love Marie describe “a grandeur of spirit so vast that it takes one’s breath away”. There’s a grand spirit, too, in this novel that makes her.

Matrix by Lauren Groff is published by William Heinemann (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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