Visionary leader, queer lover, 12th-century writer … the life of Marie de France is triumphantly reimagined in an assertively modern novel about female ambition and creativity

The author of Fates and Furies has been much acclaimed, especially in the US, for sharp yet exuberant writing about contemporary marriage, parenthood, sexual rivalry and the threats that lie in the midst of daily routines. Now, in an appealingly unpredictable move, Lauren Groff has turned her attentions to 12th-century English nuns. The result is a highly distinctive novel of great vigour and boldness. From mystical visions that may or may not be divine, to the earthy business of abbey pigs, diseases and account books, Groff does it all with purpose and panache.

We meet protagonist Marie emerging from a forest on horseback, like a knight errant at the start of a medieval romance – except not, because she’s a young woman, it’s a drizzling March day and “the world bears the weariness of late Lent”. She has been ejected from court by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine: “thrown to the dogs”, or at least sent off to be prioress at a remote royal abbey. Appalled by the prospect ahead, agonised by leaving her devoutly loved Eleanor behind, she goes to her doom. “Her old warhorse glumly plods along.”

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