The abbess who did

A review of Gainesville author Lauren Groff’s newest novel. By Ron Cunningham.

The Matrix is published by Penguin Random House. Hardcover for $28

In his 1951 sci-fi classic “The Disappearance,” Philip Wylie imagines parallel Earths: On one, all the women suddenly vanish. The other just as abruptly sheds itself of men.

E1: The men, in their fear and anger, quickly plunge themselves into nuclear war.

E2: The women begin to fill the jobs men once did.

Which naturally leads me to Gainesville author Lauren Groff and her remarkable new Medieval England-era novel “Matrix.”

A more artful writer, Groff has no need for fantastic artifice to construct a world without men. She simply gives us an extraordinary protagonist in the form of French-born Marie. The illegitimate child of royalty and a “giantess of a maiden,” all “elbows and knees” in her ungainly magnificence.

Marie is also a stranger in a strange land, having washed up in England, an unwanted ward of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Banishing this problem child to an impoverished English abbey, Groff then allows nature, or rather Marie’s own cunning, to take its course.

Marie does not weep for being “thrown to the dogs.” Shut up in a nunnery for “the rest of her gray life,” Marie instead proves herself a veritable chameleon who radiates every imaginable shade but gray.

Having inherited a poor abbey with half-starved nuns, oblates and novices, Marie slowly begins to turn its fortunes around while deftly sealing it off from male influence.

Until it becomes apparent that, far from a de facto prison sentence, what Eleanor actually handed Marie was a “delicious and forbidden privacy” in which to work her iron will.

In Groff’s “Matrix” men are shadowy presences at best. Kings, priests and laymen alike flit briefly through the pages, heard from but never actually seen. And why not? Marie’s community of women are too engaged acting “counter to all the laws of submission” to suffer male oversight.

Far fetched? Not according to Groff.

“I tried to put nothing in this book that hadn’t been supported by history,” she insists. “There were abbess’ at the time who very much decided they were their own masters. They did turn their backs on the traditional church hierarchy.”

Reporting “visions” which may or may not be divinely inspired, Marie devises an elaborate labyrinth in which to hide her feminist realm, constructs a grand edifice to enrich it…and eventually appropriates unto herself sacred rituals that had previously been the exclusive domain of men.

Of course ugly rumors fly. Do Marie’s women still worship God, or are they practicing magic? Has Jesus been eclipsed by Eve and Mary Magdalene? Dark threats are issued. A nighttime incursion is deftly repelled by Marie’s nun-warriors.

And Eleanor herself is alternately alarmed and enthralled by what Marie has wrought.

This ugly giantess who “has been made great….the holiest of holy women.”

Anyone who has read Groff’s previous novels and stories knows that this author’s greatest virtue is her economy of prose. A disciplined writer, Groff tells Marie’s story simply, directly and without the distraction of subplots or elaboration.

If “Eleanor’s best currency is story,” that goes double for Groff.

And then there is this. Whatever else Marie may be she is not an optimist. And Groff skillfully employs Marie’s gift of prophecy to predict some of the ills that plague our own “civilization” a millennia later.

Pondering on all that has been lost to the dark ages since the collapse of the Greek and Roman civilizations, Marie bleakly reflects: “In a thousand years humans will be as thoughtless as the cud-chewing kine of the fields.” And who can argue with that in this Church of Facebook Age?

And imagining the ways in which God may ultimately decided to destroy this world, Marie decides that the “fiery end would be of the stone and the soil and the waters of the Earth itself, through human folly and greed…”

Shades of climate change!

In short, Groff’s “Matrix” simultaneously transports us to a backward world that once was and the grim future that seems inevitable.

And all this through the eyes of a group of extraordinary women who decline to live lives of quiet desperation.

Now we must leave it to some latter-day Wylie to deliver the male counterpoint.

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