The Day – Review: The author of “Fates and Furies” puts a new novel at the convent

“Matrix” by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books)

Little is known about Marie de France, a 12th-century poet who lived in England but is known for the novels and fables she wrote in French. From a handful of facts, Lauren Groff has written a richly imaginative account of her life that presents her as a mystical separatist, warrior, and proto-feminist.

The story begins with a cinematic flourish: a teenage Marie “comes out of the forest alone” to supervise an impoverished abbey in England. She was banished from the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and will spend her early days at the convent yearning for the love, music and laughter of the court of Westminster.

Eventually, she will bond and transform the dirty and disease-infested place into a prosperous, “self-sufficient, self-sufficient” “island of women”. Groff, the bestselling author of “Fates and Furies”, revives the appalling conditions of the time, such as burying the sick “from head to toe in hot dung” to cure them. Yet she also finds much to admire in the rituals and rhythms of a monastic life devoted to prayer – and not an insignificant amount of scorching sex.

Groff said she became attached to the figure of Mary of France after being inspired by a lecture on medieval nuns in the midst of the Trump administration when she was exhausted and “just wanted to live in a utopia. feminine “. The book is dedicated to “all my sisters” and imbued with 21st century concerns such as gender dynamics, misogyny, sexual violence and climate change.

Historical facts are woven together – the crusades and papal prohibitions – and Mary’s ecstatic visions of the Virgin Mary, who teaches her how to build an impregnable fortress, with its own labyrinth and water supply.

Groff gave a lot of thought to the title “Matrix”, which derives from Latin for “mother”. As she says, it is also a grid, a base and an organizational structure that holds a model, in this case for a radically egalitarian community in which the least is exalted and women rule.

At the start of the novel, Marie recalls the moment Eleanor appeared at her door to banish her from the court, dressed in sable-edged dresses, jewelry dripping from ears and wrists, and wearing a perfume “strong enough to strike a soul. on the ground”. Groff writes: “His intention has always been to disarm by stunning. The same could be said of the novelist, who uses her abundant storytelling skills to bring her readers to the ground.

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