I both do and do not understand how Matrix could possibly have made it onto “Best Books” lists for 2021.
I hated the narrative style of first person present combined with free indirect discourse with a touch of narrative omniscience. I do not enjoy first person present narration in the first place and the ambiguity and unbalance between knowing what Marie thinks and feels, but also displaying knowledge of things Marie does not know (or at least not yet) just did not work for me.
I loved the generally authentic feel of the world, the descriptions, most of the characters, the presentation of mysticism, and being a woman in the twelfth century. The presentation of abbey life was generally pretty realistic, including some of the internal and external church politics.
I hated the many small holes in the plot and characters. What happens with the labyrinth? That’s such a big deal for a while and then suddenly it’s no longer a focus or hardly mentioned. How much English does Marie know and does she ever learn it? This keeps getting brought up off and on, and given Marie’s level of education in the story, she seems to have the capacity, but it’s never clear. Later on when Marie is abbess, she mentions having spies in court. While this makes sense historically and even in the world of the story, given Marie’s early history with the court, a little explanation of how she manages this would have been nice.
How Marie’s visions are treated are really interesting and in line with general medieval thought and practice, which I liked, but it irritated me a little how they seemed almost 100% positive and pretty. I’ve read some of the medieval female mystics, and more often then not, those visions get graphic or dark.
I did not like how little of Marie’s literary output is acknowledged, since that’s the source of most of our knowledge (such as it is) about the historical Marie. It could have been a really neat detail about how Marie used her Lais (not quite recognized by name in the novel but clearly noted in one brief section) to remember women and girls she knew, but on the other hand, the memories suggested by the novel don’t line up at all with the actual historical tales themselves. For example, when Marie describes the girl who lost her nose the day of her wedding to a dog in the novel, it seems like Marie sympathizes with her, but in actual the Lai the lady loses her nose as punishment for basically have been the villain by betraying her husband (who may have deserved some of it). It doesn’t line up.
Then there’s the episodic nature of the plot. It gets a little repetitive for a while; someone challenges Marie’s authority, Marie outsmarts them, and they die/leave/get otherwise subdued. This really brings out a mean-spirited feeling about Marie, and it continues in the conclusion which suggests the future of the abbey after Marie. Given Marie’s situation, niceness may not really be an option, but the persistence of Marie insisting on love and at times contentedness, this factor does not quite ever fit, especially considering how consistent it is. It’s also not just Marie, and not even just the powerful women. The whole mean-girl rules element just feels too much like a modern story, and it’s a narrative and character type I don’t really enjoy.
It really feels like knowing some of the actual history behind the novel helps me appreciate it, but more so gets in the way. At least this one can go back to the library.