Violence, Pain and Blistering Power: Women in Lauren Groff’s Matrix by Az Cosgrove

Az is a 26-year-old trans wheelchair user with an acquired brain injury. His works of both fiction and non-fiction have appeared in such publications as Voiceworks, Archer, Overland, Mascara Review, ABC News, and the 2023 anthology of the Australian Short Story Festival. He is currently completing a Master of Literature and also graduated with distinction with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2017. He was recently one of the 2023 ABC Regional Storyteller Scholars, and is also an enthusiastic user of social media. When he’s not writing, he’s spoiling his assistance dog, Ari, working out, or getting yet another tattoo.


When I listened to the audiobook recording of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, I could hear those men in the kitchen, the ones with scarred knuckles and violence in their hearts and between their legs. Inside my empty stomach, the familiar icy snake of fear writhed. I gripped my pocketknife and repositioned myself on the pillow I had wedged under my butt to prevent pressure sores. I tried to ignore the acidic flush of anxiety and focus instead on the excellent narration by Anjoah Andoh.

As the night progressed, the murky yellow light of my room in the crisis accomodation building—the “house of horrors” my friends and I have come to refer to it—faded, and was replaced by the clean, bright air of a nunnery in medieval England. Instead of the pall of cigarette smoke, I inhaled the scent of fresh bread and the vague musk of manure. Instead of the sound of my housemate pissing loudly with the bathroom door open, I heard space cracked open, expansive—a placid quiet in the time before motorisation, broken only by bird calls and the hushed voices of nuns passing below my open window.

Matrix had been a gift from my cherished friend and author, Katia Ariel. I wish I could do more, she said (or rather typed, as we are geographically separated by a state line) but it is the understatement of the century, or at least of my year: she had in fact given me an entirely new world.

Matrix tells the story of a community of nuns led by a character named Marie, who is based on the very real figure of Marie de France, a woman who lived in the 12th century and is considered by many historians to be one of the first writers of French prose. In the first couple of pages, we are introduced to both the Abbey and the language Groff uses, which is wonderfully evocative of the decadent prose of high fantasy:

‘She sees for the first time, the Abbey: pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley; the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall.’
(Chapter 1, 00:35-00:45).

However, while the language used in Matrix sates the guilty craving that high fantasy indulges, it describes a reality not too far removed from our own. Matrix presents a version of history close to that which likely did exist but was never documented: one full of queer desire and love and unapologetic feminine power. These are historical wounds that have long scarred, but which, through fiction, Groff somehow manages to draw fresh blood. Or, maybe not blood, but something else: something iridescent and shimmering.

My phone dings and it is a message from a member of my personal squadron of superheroes, all of whom are women. Here, from a desire for political correctness, I am tempted to replace the word “women” with “people of gender diversity”, but, while there are people, precious beyond words, of diverse gender identity in my life, it is simply true that my first line of defence during that time were all cis women. These women were the ones both willing and able to drop everything and rush to my aid, the ones with both the will and the resources to save me, to pluck me from between the teeth of the corrupt machine of a society that still feeds on bodies that don’t fit into the silhouette of the norm. Women. I will refer to them as they are (I will not erase them, as has happened enough in mainstream history. To celebrate women is not to erase the trans and non-binary experiences, but to honour the historical bedrock that underpins gender divergence.)

The message reads: Are you OK to talk? The question is an unfortunate necessity, because often the answer is “no”. Our conversations are shrinking and hushed things. Our voices—the differing pitches forming a euphoric contrast—weary with a history that we share, an inheritance of silence that runs deeper than the testosterone that now courses through my blood. But occasionally our muted whispering lights up with the sparks of genuine human connection (sudden laughter, a moment of dorky enthusiasm, the sound of her toddler daughter’s voice—soft and sweet, shy—in the background).

Those moments led me to a truth: that, though vastly different, both the lives of these women and my own curl from a shared historical line.

I was a daughter, I say to my therapist, and am stunned into silence by the truth of it, how much it explains of me. And lately, it is a truth that I can’t stop thinking about. I think about it when I listen to the news and hear that, in 2024 so far, in the so called “lucky country”, a woman has been killed on average every four days. I think about it when I hear the names of the five women killed in the attack at Bondi Junction in April (I say them under my breath: Ashlee Good, Pikria Darchia, Yixuan Cheng, Dawn Singleton, Jade Young), and when it is reported that during a wave of national protests calling for action against gendered violence, the ex-partner of WA woman Erin Hay is charged with her murder.

Maybe, at last, change will come. But maybe not. I can’t be sure. All I can be sure of is this: women are fucking amazing. And though I am not one, I am incredibly proud of the history that we share.
A similar sentiment is at the core of Matrix. It is fundamentally a celebration of women; Specifically of female wisdom, made literal by the “visions” experienced by Marie. In the description of the first of these visions, language that is decadent and richly evocative blooms like colour from the page, as sudden and overwhelming as a thunderclap:

“Lightning sparks in the tips of her fingers, swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and settles jagged and blazing in her throat.”(Chapter 1, 04:09-04:20).

While Marie attributes such visions to the Virgin Mary, the otherworldly figure that appears “wears the face of her own mother”(Chapter 1, 05:40), and when the vision fades, Marie finds herself “in a ring of her own daughters.”(Chapter 1, 06:07). While the exact cause of the visions is not made clear, what does become apparent is that with the bending of reality, the maternal line does not break. Indeed, it reappears, intact, woven through the rest of the book, and the reader need only turn a few pages before encountering some variant of the words “mother” or “daughter”.

Throughout the novel, the nuns retreat further and further from the rest of society. Under Marie’s instruction, the Abbey is fortified by the construction of a labyrinth through the forest, and all men are exiled from its grounds. While in today’s context, this narrative might seem to reinforce the rigid essentialist rhetoric of “man-hating” feminism, which gave rise to the TERF movement, a la J.K. Rowling, we must read Matrix as what it is: a breathtaking piece of historical fiction written to embody the reality faced by women in the 12th century.

The women in my life continue to astound me. They are women with eyes of steel, painted nails and hands that never tremble. They are women with a love for their daughters so blisteringly intense that I almost can’t bear the heat that radiates from it.

I celebrate these women every time I rub my hand in awe over my stubbled chin. I celebrate them every time I trace an ecstatic arc with a dumbbell curled towards my torso, every time I absently lay my palm against my top surgery scar and feel my heart beating just beneath the surface.

Matrix is a celebration of the history that these women have passed down to their daughters, and that I, too, have inherited. It is a celebration that transforms a history riddled with gaps, silences, into one fissured with crystal.


Voicestamps from Matrix, Lauren Groff audiobook, 23/09/2021, Language: English
Penguin Audio Whispersync for Voice-ready