While searching through her dead mother’s possessions, Anna Bain finds an old journal of her father’s, a discovery that she hopes will offer clarity about a person she never really knew. So begins Chibundu Onuzo’s third novel, Sankofa, an enjoyably readable novel that raises questions of belonging and the search for personal roots.
Francis Aggrey’s diary offers important clues about his identity. He was a young student from a small West African country, here fictionalized as Bamana but bearing some resemblance to Ghana, and attended college in 1970s London. He boarded with a white Welsh family and began a romantic relationship with the younger daughter, Bronwen—Anna’s mother—before becoming involved in radical politics and returning to Bamana.
Anna is shocked to find out that after years of political activism, Francis became the prime minister of his country under the name Kofi Adjei. Even more amazing, the former leader is still alive. Upon learning this information, Anna finds herself at a crux in her own life, separated from her husband and with no real ties to London, and so she journeys to Bamana to find her father.
One of the strengths of Sankofa is that Anna must consistently confront notions of difference and acceptance. She was never comfortable growing up biracial in 1980s London, and her experience in Bamana is no less disorienting, especially because she passes for white among the local population. It is even more challenging for her to hear reports about her father that aren’t positive; as much as he has accomplished for his country, there are rumors that he suppressed free speech and quashed student rebellions. Yet there is no question that for Anna, meeting her father provides a sense of stability and of self that she’s never really known.
Onuzo’s disarmingly frank novel contends with complex issues of identity and prejudice, and it doesn’t sugarcoat its depiction of the fractured history of a developing country. Onuzo sets Anna on a path that can only be completed when she begins to come to terms with her past.
Chibudno Onuzo’s novel is enjoyably readable and disarmingly frank as it follows a woman in search of her father.
Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, her highly anticipated follow-up to Fates and Furies (2015), takes place almost 800 years ago, yet it feels both current and timely. Set in a small convent in 12th-century England, Matrix looks back in time to comment astutely on the world as we now know it, exploring big ideas about faith, gender, community and individualism.
Abbess Marie is based in part on Marie de France, France’s earliest known female poet and one of the country’s most well-regarded literary stylists. As a teenager, Groff’s fictional Marie is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court and sent to molder in an impoverished abbey. Marie soon rises to the senior position of abbess, and she transforms the convent into a thriving estate.
Marie’s modifications to the abbey are guided by visions that draw imagery from the real Marie de France’s tales of courtly love. These visions are the motivation and impetus for many of Marie’s boldest innovations: the successful scriptorium where gorgeous new manuscripts are produced; the abbess house where Marie offers comfort and privacy; and the impenetrable labyrinth that girds the abbey, protecting the women who live inside.
Groff brings a bold originality to Matrix and a compassion for her characters, no matter how prickly some of them may be. This is a heartening story of one woman’s vision and creativity, unthwarted and flourishing, despite all odds.
A 12th-century abbess deserves to be your next literary hero. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, shares how she found refuge in her latest novel’s community of nuns.
Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, Matrix, is a mesmerizing portrait of a remarkable nun in 12th-century England who oversees an abbey in a rapidly changing and sometimes hostile environment. After Groff’s previous books, which have explored small towns, utopian communities and Floridian flora and fauna, my most pressing questions for the author can be boiled down to, why a novel about nuns? And why now?
“Those are the questions,” Groff says with a laugh, speaking by video call from a writer’s retreat in Italy. She traces the novel’s genesis back to three years ago, when she was at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, working on a very different novel, one she hopes that at some point will come into the world. “I was surrounded by artists and scholars that were doing things that were so far beyond my ken,” she recalls. “Every day was like a mini-explosion in my brain.”
She attended a lecture on medieval nuns by Dr. Katie Bugyis, who has researched the lives of nuns based on the liturgy they produced and used. “It was as if she had opened up my brain and threw her light in,” Groff says. “I knew it was the next thing I was going to write.”
“Awe is the most powerful emotion I know, because within awe, there is fear, there is love, there is wonder.”
Marie, the nun protagonist of Matrix, is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court at age 17 and sent to live in a penurious abbey. Awkward and miserable, Marie makes the best of her situation and soon rises to the senior position of abbess. Bit by bit she transforms the tumbledown, muddy convent into a prosperous estate with verdant fields, healthy flocks and a successful scriptorium, protected by a forest labyrinth and Marie’s shrewd awareness of shifting political winds. Along the way, she is inspired by spiritual visions and memories of her mother’s family, whom she accompanied on the early Crusades.
Marie’s story is based on that of Marie de France, considered to be one of France’s most important writers and the country’s first acknowledged female poet. So little is known about Marie that her biography is merely outline; Groff describes trying to research her as “being handed a poetic form.”
But we do know some things about her, Groff says. “We know approximately when she lived and where. We know she was a noble or gentlewoman because she was able to write in several languages. She was educated at a time when most women were not. And most importantly, we know what she wrote: fables and lais,” or narrative poems of courtly love.
Elements from Marie’s lais appear throughout Matrix, which is rich with furled rosebuds, blooming trees and enclosed gardens. “It was a joyous experience to go back to the lais, which I knew from college, and to create her life from the work,” Groff says. “I know it’s the opposite of what scholars do, but I’m not a scholar, I’m a fiction writer.”
Groff did a tremendous amount of research for Matrix, including visiting a small Benedictine convent in Connecticut where she was struck by the strong ties of kinship and community. “I was profoundly moved by the way the older nuns, who are not far from death, are cared for by the people who love them so deeply,” she says. “It’s a definition of family that is not often represented in the outside world.”
Groff drew from this idyllic setting to create her fictional community of sisters. Marie’s convent is a place of female friendships and love affairs, scholarship and learning. It’s a refuge for outsider women and those with untapped talents, ranging from engineering to calligraphy to animal husbandry. “I wanted to live in a world of women,” Groff says. “I wanted to hear women’s voices, experience only a female gaze.”
Examining the balance of community and the individual is nothing new for Groff, whose novels The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia also examined small-town life and intentional communities. Even Fates and Furies depicts a closed community of two people whose insular marriage makes it difficult for anyone else to penetrate their intense bond.
“You know,” Groff remarks ruefully, “I keep thinking I’m writing a brand-new book, but maybe I’m writing the same thing every time. I was raised in the small town of Cooperstown, New York, and I was utterly fascinated by the way individuals acted within a tight and closed community. It was early training for storytelling to be among growing, living stories of other people that you could watch out of the corner of your eye. A small place in the middle of nowhere was a real petri dish for understanding human behavior.”
Even though the world of Matrix could not seem further away from 21st-century America, Groff is well aware of how current affairs informed the writing of her new novel—and indeed, all of her work. “It’s very much in our national DNA to insist on the importance of the individual,” she says. “But a country cannot be a country without the collective, and right now the pressure points between these two courses are rising. My work struggles with this paradox and explores how Americans are choosing to live.”
At several points in the novel, Marie experiences striking visions that she does not share with the other nuns but rather keeps in a series of private notebooks. These visions draw imagery and language from the Bible, a seminal book in Groff’s upbringing and an early step to her lifelong love of literature.
Groff was raised in the Presbyterian church, where her father was a deacon, and she remembers the church of her childhood as a vaulted, soaring space, “like the inside of a whale.” The experience of being in communion with others while singing or praying had a meaningful aesthetic impact. But it was the stories from the Bible that hooked her.
“Stories are the thing that made me a person,” she says. “I was the kind of kid who was filled with religious fervor. I had a beautiful little Bible with fine tissue pages and gilt edges. I would sit and read it at night, just trying to get through all the begats and the thous, and just be filled with this unappeasable longing for the stories. And then I started seeing the stories reflected back at me from the other things I was reading. It was such an exciting feeling, like an electrical charge, to see biblical stories echoing in literature.”
Over time, Groff explains, literature took the place of religion. “I’ve become a secular believer, if that makes sense. I believe in the goodness of humanity. I am moved by the natural world in a way that is akin to the kinds of things I experienced as a child. When I am writing, I try to give the reader a few of those moments of wonder and awe. Awe is the most powerful emotion I know, because within awe, there is fear, there is love, there is wonder.”
The awe-filled moments in Matrix are too many to count, whether in the poetry of Marie’s visions, her longing for friends who are far away or the vivid descriptions of the creation of the labyrinth, a structure associated with religious contemplation that in Groff’s hands becomes a symbol, a weapon and a line of defense.
Marie conceives of the labyrinth less as a place for the nuns to find peace and more as an instrument to separate themselves from the outside world, which she perceives as dangerous and threatening. For Groff, the symbol of the labyrinth goes even deeper. She read about ancient ruins in England that had been buried underground over centuries and were now re-emerging. “Because of climate change and the wet ground drying out, the impressions of these ruins are literally coming up from the earth and becoming apparent,” she says. “I loved that idea of a hidden structure that only through trauma could be revealed. The novel is structured around the shape of a labyrinth, although it’s deeply embedded and I’m not sure anyone can see it. But it’s there.”
Matrix tells a tale of the astounding ingenuity, strength and female companionship that flourished during an era of intense patriarchal oppression. Matrix is the Latin word for mother, but additional definitions include a plant whose seeds were used for producing other plants, a grid, an organizational structure and, perhaps most significantly, “the bedrock in geology in which you find gems.”
Groff has created a labyrinth of jewel-like moments, selected from an incredible woman’s life during a time ostensibly far away from our own, and transformed it into a novel that is perfect for right now.
Author photo by Eli Sinkus
Matrix author Lauren Groff shares how she found refuge in her latest novel’s community of nuns. “It’s a definition of family that is not often represented in the outside world.”
The author of several historical mysteries and a wild reworking of Jane Eyre (the Edgar Award-nominated Jane Steele), Lyndsay Faye brings considerable skills and irreverent humor to The King of Infinite Space, a contemporary reimagining of Hamlet set in and around a New York City theater.
Benjamin Dane is both fabulously wealthy and kept on just this side of sanity by a slew of medications. He is the son of Jackson and Trudy, owners of the prestigious New World’s Stage. After Jackson dies under mysterious circumstances, Trudy immediately marries her brother-in-law, Claude. In mourning and struggling with his suicidal impulses, Benjamin uncovers a videotape from a paranoid-seeming Jackson, who names Claude as his murderer.
Distraught, Benjamin reaches out to Horatio Patel, a friend from graduate school who left New York after the two men had a one-night stand. Horatio returns from England to console his friend and aid in Benjamin’s plan to denounce his mother and uncle at the theater’s annual fundraising gala. Benjamin’s ex-girlfriend, Lia Brahms, wants to help, but her job as a florist’s assistant keeps her too busy.
Faye’s knowledge of Shakespeare extends well past Hamlet, as The King of Infinite Space name-checks characters from several of the Bard’s plays, from Ariel, the all-knowing doorman at the New World; to the meddling event coordinator Robin Goodfellow; to the three weird sisters who manage the flower shop where Lia is employed and who specialize in bouquets that heal, cure and maybe even alter the future.
Lush and magical, thoughtful and provocative, The King of Infinite Space is a remarkable achievement, staying true to Shakespeare’s tragic play in ways that will surprise and delight while reveling in neurodivergence, queer attraction and quantum physics. Though the buildup is slow and Benjamin’s philosophical meanderings occasionally digressive, this is a novel to stick with for its rewards of a surprising plot and Faye’s delightful storytelling.
The King of Infinite Space is a remarkable achievement, staying true to Hamlet’s tragic plot in ways that will surprise and delight.
While Old Man Tucker is out collecting ginseng in the hills of eastern Kentucky, he discovers the dead body of local woman Nonnie Johnson. Newly promoted Sheriff Linda Hardin, hoping for a quick resolution to her first murder case, asks her brother, Mick, a military homicide investigator, to help find the killer. So begins Chris Offutt’s The Killing Hills.
A veteran of wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Mick returned home on personal leave to patch things up with his estranged pregnant wife. But now he’s AWOL and just barely managing to stay one step ahead of the military police. He spends most of his time camping out at his grandfather’s abandoned cabin, hiking the surrounding hills and drinking too much.
Despite having been away from home for more than a decade, Mick’s knowledge of the land and the community is still strong, thanks to his close observation and hard-won intimacies. Traveling from holler to holler, appraising the landscape and gaining the respect of his gun-toting neighbors, Mick is a valuable asset to Linda, who is mired in local politics and saddled with an incompetent assistant with ties to the area’s fading coal industry.
The Killing Hills has all the marks of a classic thriller, but its murder plot is secondary to the Appalachian setting. Offutt’s small-town Kentucky is a place of tightknit families, long-held grudges, chemical dependency and simmering violence. One of Offutt’s strengths is his familiarity with the area’s folkways, flora and people, a trait he shares with Mick and has demonstrated in his previous fiction, memoirs and work as a writer on television dramas such as “True Detective.”
A rural noir with attitude to spare, The Killing Hills moves as briskly as a well-constructed miniseries, right down to its unanswered questions that carry the hopeful possibility of a sequel.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly indicated that Offutt worked on “True Blood,” not “True Detective.”
A rural noir with attitude to spare, The Killing Hills moves as briskly as a well-constructed miniseries.
Radical thinker and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft died less than two weeks after giving birth to her second daughter, a baby girl who would grow up to become the author of Frankenstein. Samantha Silva’s Love and Fury uses the last 11 days of Wollstonecraft’s life as a frame, allowing her to tell her life story to her infant daughter.
Wollstonecraft’s childhood was shaped by a dissolute father and a withholding mother. A young woman of remarkable intelligence and precociousness, she formed many of her theories about marriage and the evils of patriarchy early on. She set out to change opinions, first by running a small school with Fanny Blood, a botanical illustrator with whom she shared a passionate friendship, and then by writing, most significantly A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Wollstonecraft’s uncompromising romances with Swiss artist Henry Fuselli and American businessman Gilbert Imlay (father of Wollstonecraft’s first daughter, Fanny), though unsuccessful in the long run, led her to friendships with some of the 18th century’s most notable intellectuals and radicals, including Thomas Paine, William Blake and Abigail Adams.
Hers was a peripatetic life, spent traveling all over England with a short stint in Ireland as a governess. Living in Paris during the French Revolution inspired many of the ideas that found fruition in A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In 1797, she married William Godwin, Mary Shelley's father, after a long friendship, though their relationship is barely alluded to in the novel.
After the birth, when it becomes clear that Wollstonecraft has a life-threatening infection due to a male doctor’s procedure for delivering the placenta, midwife Parthenia Blenkinsop is called to the house to tend to mother and daughter during their only days together. Love and Fury is told in a series of short chapters, alternating Wollstonecraft’s memories with Parthenia’s experience of caring for the ill woman and new baby. Silva’s attention to period detail creates a heartbreaking novel of compassion and grace, as well as an elegy to one of the world’s most influential thinkers.
Samantha Silva’s attention to period detail creates a worthy elegy to one of the world’s most influential feminist thinkers, Mary Wollstonecraft.
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