Matrix by Lauren Groff – a powerful tale of a remarkable woman in a unique historical novel as the author appears at the Cheltenham Literature Festival


The Cheltenham Literature Festival 2021 begins! I was lucky enough to be invited to read and review a book from one of the many authors who are appearing at this year’s festival, and I was fortunate to receive the new book by Lauren Groff. She appears alongside Sarah Hall in an event called “The Long and Short of It”, discussing the short story form at which both writers excel as well as their highly praised novels. The event is listed in the programme as being on Saturday 9th October 5.30 – 6.30pm. Many more essential details are in the full programme which is available online. It sounds an amazing event!

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Historical fiction is rarely as powerful as this novel of a remarkable woman, an abbey and a life that draws its depths from visions and love. In a near poetic novel that reveals the story of Marie de France, huge, ungainly and obsessive, there is a strong and vital message about the strength of women and girls when directed. The creation of a community of nuns and other women from a tiny, impoverished abbey which comes to rely on the visionary and almost supernatural power of a woman is almost a fable, but it is set in times of enormous political and religious upheaval. As Queen Eleanor of Aquitane leads her brilliant court, Marie wants to be in that place, not in a miserable weather lashed corner of an England seemingly deprived of colours. She will do anything, risk everything just to be in the presence of the queen who she undoubtedly loves. It is her tragedy that she cannot be, but also her greatest inspiration.

This is a rare book that challenges perspectives on how women can live together in a community which has to deal with sometimes brutal death, but also reflects the gentle tenderness of love. Told in the present tense, centring on the emotions, thoughts and visions of a remarkable woman, it is an inspiring tale of how a very basic setting allows for sophisticated creation of buildings, places for women to live and work on their own merits and gifts. The plot is Marie’s progress, her life, its challenges and victories. It is honest, as she realises her limitations, but also her great strength. The quality of the writing is extraordinary, episodic but drawn together into a narrative that carries the reader along. I found this an amazing novel and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The novel opens with the seventeen year old Marie travelling through the March drizzle to get to the abbey where she knows she will be stuck for life. Although of royal blood, she was illegitimate and grew up surrounded by physically active aunts who shared her large frame and strength. She has had to leave her life long friend, servant and lover Cecily behind, and be exiled from the bright and glorious court of Eleanor whom she has always adored. She has run her family estate for years after her mother died, a fact she concealed, and now is considered unlikely to secure a suitable marriage. She is to be exiled to be prioress of the obscure English abbey which has plunged into starvation, disease and poverty. When she arrives they are shocked by her size and lack of apparent piety, and for some time she is unhappy in the silence, circle of prayer and absence from the women she loves. It will take a huge change to save the abbey, but also ignite the interest of a remarkable woman in a project that will take her life in so many ways.

I found that this book is quite a reading experience, with much to say about the nature of women living and working together through life in an isolated community. It is a remarkable book which I found drew me in and is unique in its powerful story of love, vision and purpose. I recommend it strongly as an incredible read from an immensely talented writer.