“Matrix” by Lauren Groff; Riverhead (272 pages, $28)
Lauren Groff has been contemplating the wellspring of female power in her fiction for awhile now, notably in the startling second act of her novel “Fates and Furies,” but also in the humid shadows of her story collection “Florida.” Where does power come from? Can anyone harness it? And how can women best use it in a male-dominated world?
Groff’s new novel “Matrix” offers a mesmerizing glimpse into some of her conclusions. A bold, thrilling work that highlights the wild, wide range of Groff’s imagination, “Matrix” follows the life of Marie, a French teenager sent to a crumbling medieval convent in England to become its new prioress. Through her rise as a formidable force for change, Marie charts a course that subverts gender rules, examines the limits of responsibility and redefines what it means to love and make a mark on the world.
But at 17, friendless and alone, she arrives despondent at the ruin of a convent, unloved and unlovely, a “giantess of a maiden.” She is a child of rape, her father a rough Plantagenet, her mother a girl who strayed too far from safety. This act provided an early lesson: The world is predatory. Act accordingly.
Marie has been abandoned by the one she loves best: Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Cool, beautiful and well versed in cruelty, flattery and the wielding of influence, the queen has decided the girl is too ungainly and ugly for marriage and dumped her amid the starving nuns with little concern.
But Marie comes from a family of warriors: Her brazen, zealous aunts went on a crusade to the Holy Land, dragging small Marie with them. And somewhere in her an understanding flowers as she begins to see the possibilities in her new existence: “Most souls upon the earth are not at ease unless they find themselves safe in the hands of a force far greater than themselves.” Marie decides she will be that force.
The novel winds through Marie’s life as she works to protect the women in her care and make a name for herself. She flatters, cajoles, upends convent order. In one stirring sequence, she leads sisters and staff in an ambush against marauding intruders. When she receives visions on how to further advance the convent’s aims, controversy stirs. Are the visions signs of divine guidance -- or ego?
Groff revels in these questions of faith and feminism, filling the novel with rich detail and unforgettable women. As climate change rattles our world, she can’t resist a warning: Entropy, in fiction and in life, is the inevitable tragic endgame.
“Collapse is the constant state of humanity. ... The story of the flood and the great ark that saved the creatures two by two is only the first refrain of a song that is to be sung over and over, the earth’s gradual and repeated diminishment, civilization after civilization foundering to dust.” But even as we stumble, fall and grieve the future, she writes, we can shine a light, too.
Connie Ogle is a writer and book critic in Florida.