Riverhead. Sept. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781594634499. $28. F
On its surface, Groff’s new work is a fairly sharp departure from her last novel, Fates and Furies. Where that earlier work employed a bifurcated story structure to build immense complexity into its narrative of both a marriage and its individual human halves, her latest is an architecturally cleaner effort, fitting for a novel constructed upon the quotidian toil of an early medieval abbess. Taking as its inception the life of Marie de France, a 12th-century Francophone poet about whom materially little is known, this imaginative fiction finds its subject as a 17-year-old cast out of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court and made prioress of an impoverished, rural abbey in England. From here, Groff builds her novel around movements in Marie’s life, alternating between acceleration and deceleration, sometimes moving through decades in a short number of pages and in other sequences pausing to plumb certain transformative periods at length, taking advantage of the period setting and language to flex her powers as one of today’s preeminent prose stylists. The result charts a more languorous course than the author’s usual work, but this patient, nonplussed, page-to-page experience belies the novel’s gripping cumulative force. Despite initial appearances, then, Groff’s latest is indeed something of a dual narrative: that of a formidable, ceaseless woman and a powerful sisterhood shaped in her shadow.
VERDICT Both epic and intimate, this powerful and sneakily complex record of womankind’s collective strength and industry in a world pitched against them is bolstered by Groff’s rich, fertile prose.
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