Matrix by Lauren Groff review – thrilling journey into the mystical | Lauren Groff

Masters and convents make excellent melting pots: closed worlds where the events of a novel are exacerbated, their tensions felt more acutely. Sylvia Townsend Warner The corner that held them is an almost forgotten masterpiece set in a medieval convent, while Umberto Eco The name of the rose metafictionally had fun mixing crime and semiotics. More recently, there was that of Christopher Wilson Hurdy-Gurdy, by James Meek In Calais, in Ordinary Times and, in a slightly biased view, that of Robert Harris The second sleep. We now have Lauren Groff, author of the famous Fates and Furies, a sharp novel of New York life that drew comparisons to missing girl and was praised by Barack Obama. Groff’s fourth novel, Matrix, is something very different indeed: an eerie, poetic historical fiction set in a dreamlike abbey, the fictional biography of a 12th-century mystic.

Mary of France is a mysterious character, a poet whose visionary tales and magical fables, written in Francian, a medieval dialect of Old French, are complex, sensual and self-lacerating. Groff read these mystical poems and the limited historical records we have and fashioned a life for Mary. We first meet our unsightly 17-year-old heroine, as she is driven from her home; Eleanor of Aquitaine’s illegitimate half-sister, she was sent to a convent in England. She leaves behind the servant whose “sharp and learned body” gave Marie endless pleasure. She is almost madly in love with her half-sister, whose presence weighs heavily on her teenage spirit.

Marie finds the abbey in a lamentable state. The abbess is debauched and clumsy. The nuns’ faces are skinned skulls of flesh in the dark dormitory”. Marie first comes up against the restrictions of the convent, then decides to seize power herself. Soon she was prioress, then abbess, and the once unproductive lands and delinquent tenants made the abbey a place of great wealth. Like Madeline Miller in The Song of Achilles, Groff finds in the germs of the historical record whispers of hidden sexuality. “There is no mention of female sodomy in any of the books and the great angry moralists would have mentioned it if it was a sin,” Marie thought to herself. Soon all the men are expelled from the lands around the convent and a large maze is built to protect it from attack. The abbey becomes an island, the women bringing each other everything they need.

This island is under attack: by jealous villagers, by a sex-crazed novice, by the church in England and Rome. Mary – massive, majestic, wise – overcomes them all. Groff has written a beautiful unclassifiable book, a strange story that recovers a great poetess from the past and fills her with a glorious and corporeal life. Marie wrote moral fables and this is a way of understanding Matrix, though its lessons are complex and obscure, its vision of a closed feminine state far from being utopian.

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