Book Review: Matrix, by Lauren Groff
No part of the plot or the writing was clear in my head while I read this book. Instead, the words were like washes of colour and impressions of images flashing by; they had to slide into my brain and gradually build up like layers of sand.
Every now and then, you read a writer that makes you realise what literature can do, that it's capable of redefining itself – reinventing what a book can be. Matrix was like that for me.
Maddy holds up a copy of Matrix on the beach. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2023.
Marie de France is descendant of a long line of female warriors and crusaders jousting for Christendom in the Holy Lands. Though Marie is wily, clever and strong, Queen Eleanor decides that Marie is too coarse for court life: she is sent to Angleterre to become prioress of a small, impoverished abbey.
Marie is numbed by her loss, enraged by her isolation and resentful of her placement, until she grows into her power and is enriched by the sisterhood existing within the abbey. Years pass as Marie works toward building a community that feeds hundreds, pays for enterprise and gives its inhabitants pride. Over time, the abbey becomes a self-sufficient female utopia.
Over the course of her lifetime, Marie encounters death, visions, doubt and love – but dominant over all other themes were self-belief and sisterhood. Matrix glows with a really obvious feminist perspective, but contrary to giving me that on-the-nose feeling, it worked to enhance every element of the story and writing. Far from a rambling essay, it was a call to action and a pining for historical female agency.
In this video, Lauren Groff explains the historical source of her novel. Video: YouTube, FRANCE 24 English, 2023.
Marie was so real to me: as I read, she unfolded as an aggressive protector and proud purveyor of change. Her motives made sense and felt natural. Her past was tragic and beautiful in equal measure, and seemed historically accurate but still magical. In a murky book of vague descriptions and vague imagery, her character was crystal clear. It was such a masterful lesson in writing and there's no doubt in my mind that Lauren Groff knew exactly what she was doing.
Marie's greed was touched on and acknowledged vaguely by the book – enough so that we were respected as readers, encouraged to muse on this for ourselves instead of being hand-fed through Marie's reflection. We watch as her pride costs the abbey and as her determination saves it. Her elevation was self-induced, but her arrogance taught her sisters to rise also.
This image is an artistic rendering of Marie de France writing her poetry. Image: World History Encyclopedia, 2023.
In saying this, the nuns were quite often compared to and treated as pets at best, mindless livestock at worst. Marie seemed to have only the vaguest respect for the abilities of her nuns – she coddled them but became scornful when they asserted themselves in an effort to have a frank, open discussion with their abbess. Each nun became a wheel in the machinery of Marie's plans and it was really disconcerting to read. I think this was the point, though: we can clearly see where Marie's power could so easily overcome her, and how even good intentions can sour with arrogance and divine pride.
In saying this, I wanted more from the nuns! As a reader who loves likeable characters and connecting through sympathy, I wanted to know more of their pasts, more of their thoughts – I wanted to them to become greater and have more to do within the story. I think Marie had to be the central, dominating figure for the narrative's themes to work, I totally get that, but for my interest and personal reading habits I wanted to know the nuns as complicated beings themselves.
Rather than as livestock.
I've already mentioned how the book felt like a wash of impressions rather than single plot lines or character threads. Concentrating too hard on the unfolding years was like trying to hold water in my hands: things moved so rapidly. It was such an interesting decision for the writer to make, because I was forced to hold instead to the flashes of perfect description, deciphering meaning beneath the surface of every sentence. Because you can trust Lauren Groff – every one of her words was chosen carefully and with purpose.
Take this passage on page 45:
The song rises from the mouths of the nuns in puffs of white breath, it expands as it flies, it touches the tall white ceiling and collects there until it grows so heavy that it begins to pour down the walls and the pillars and the windows in a cascade; it trickles back across the stone floor to where the nuns' clogs press, and up through their wooden heels and it reaches their tender living skin and passes into the blood and purifies itself as it rolls through their bodies, up through the stinking entrails and the breath exhaled from the lungs. And the song that rises into them and leaves their mouths is prayer intensified, redoubled in its strength every time it pours through them anew.
In this paragraph, Lauren Groff totally transforms what is a normal, expected setting – nuns singing together in prayer – and gives it light and breath. The music is personified, oozing like liquid around the space and surrounding the nuns, joining them together. It becomes alive. The stregth of found family is cemented through the magic of the scene.
Words are so freaking powerful.
When I picked this up, a really large part of me wanted a readable romp that would forcibly hold my attention. I thought it would be a physical battle against the patriarchy where nuns learned how to use actual weapons, while deciding to disregard the sinfulness of murder.
But I'm more than happy to be wrong. Though there was a tinge of that violence, Matrix was mostly about learning to fight another way: re-interpreting religious texts, finding sisterhood, learning to be patient, selfless and brave. It's mostly about the power of believing in your own strength.
There were moments where I had to put the book down and shake my head to clear it because I was confused or tired. My eyes would close accidentally because I tried to read when I wasn't in the mood for it and the words became like thick soup in my brain.
But more overriding is the fact that Lauren Groff's writing will stay with me and I won't forget it. The vibrant historical setting pulsed so powerfully and there were some truly beautiful passages of writing. It kept me reading when I could very easily have been lost.
As always, thanks a bunch for reading with me,