Book of the Month: Matrix by Lauren Groff (2021)

Critical Review

“Perhaps the greatest pleasure of this novel is also its most subtle. Groff is a gifted writer capable of deft pyrotechnics and well up to the challenges she sets herself, including that of rendering feverish apparitions of the Virgin as recorded by a seminal poet of the Western canon. One senses she doesn’t so much struggle to create her vision but is borne aloft on it, which is the page-by-page pleasure as we soar with her.

“But it’s the dogged progress of a grand life that sustains this narrative. From its inauspicious beginning in the person of a sullen, selfish, godless teenager banished by an empress to perish in squalor, Marie’s transformation is that of a woman upon whom greatness is not thrust but slowly gathers. An orphan entrusted with the lives of others, calling herself their mother, gradually, by force of will, by dint of hard experience, becomes exactly that. As she reflects on her deathbed, “greatness was not the same as goodness”; but it does make for a more compelling story line.”

Harrison, Kathryn, ‘In Lauren Groff’s New Novel, Nothing — and Everything — Is Sacred,’ The New York Times Book Review, August 31, 2021.

First Excerpt

“Marie follows Wevua into the chapel where one beeswax taper is left burning. The abbey in its distress has sold all its ornaments, and only a wood carving remains: skinny shanks and wounds and thorns and blood and rib‑bones, that ancient story she knows by heart. Up the black night stairs to the dortoir, where a single lantern burns over the rows of twenty nuns already asleep in their narrow beds, wearing their full habits, for perhaps it is tonight that the Angels of the Resurrection will blow their horns and they must be prepared to fly into the arms of heaven. There is a sense that eyes are watching Marie but what faces she sees are smooth with sleep, feigned or real. There are whispers down the line, a rattling cough. Wind blows through the gaps in the window shutters, there are flakes in the dortoir’s air that melt before they touch the ground. Marie lies down on the bed that Wevua gestures toward. She is too tall for these bedframes and has no comfort until she slides down to bend her knees and put her feet on the floor, which meets her heel flesh with its implacable cold.”

Second Excerpt

“Marie wakes to Wevua a great dark cloud before her, and a pain in her knees because Wevua is kicking Marie’s legs with the toe of her clogs, telling her to get up, lazybones, to get up great frail whingeing thing, that it is now Matins, up up up, blueblood lagabed rawboned unlovely shadow‑hearted bastardess of a false prioress, up up up, the magistra spies no love for god within Marie’s wicked heart and Wevua will seed it there by force or see the girl perish unshriven.

“Marie rises in a panic and sees through the window the moon fat in the black sky and all the landscape swallowed in darkness. And ahead of her in the single lantern light the other nuns are disappearing down the night stairs, faceless in the dark. And Marie still in the vividness of her dream hears their habits rustling dry and cold and can think only of the wings of carrionbirds descending in slow circles to their feast of death below.”