No Happy Nonsense


By: Lauren Groff
Published: 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Finished Reading: January 15th, 2023

Marie is sent to live at an abbey full of nuns. Exiled without being exiled, she is a somewhat highborn woman (her mother was raped and had her) that is in love with the Queen, but is unrequited. It seems the Queen thinks of her mostly as something to play with during idle moments. Marie's mother and family were crusaders, women warriors who fought the righteous fight but ultimately didn't make it all the way to Jerusalem.

Marie arrives at the abbey, and instead of breaking under the Rule, she ascends to something larger. The abbey is small and barren, nuns here endure pain and daily small tortures as a way to pray, to understand God, to understand the love of Mary. Marie almost as soon as she arrives cannot accept this. She spends her time becoming a nun, arising to subprioress, and ruling as a shadow ruler while the figurehead Abbess prays and sings and dawdles around. When the abbess passes, Marie takes over officially.

The abbey becomes productive, opening a book-making studio, increasing their yield of animals, growing their numbers of nuns and oblates and the nearby villages supported by the abbey. The nuns eat good now, do not endure as many tiny tortures in their lives.

She sees visions. Projects to make the abbey an impenetrable fortress. The entire abbey spends years building a labyrinth of the surrounding areas of the abbey, an above ground thicket of overgrowth maze with a tunnel network below, all visitors blindfolded as they go through the tunnels so that only the nuns know the ways in and out.

They build a dam. They build an abbess quarters fit for the Queen. Marie has risen to power within her confines of the abbey. She is large and indefatigable in her shell.

Her daughters, the sisters of the abbey prosper under her rule. Some say the things she does, like holding mass, are heretical. But none dare oppose her. She sees the life of Wulfhild flourish and eventually snuff out, painful but beautiful, to observe.

Marie steals moments of tenderness with Nest, the infirmatrix, and another of the sisters who's name escapes me at the moment. There are lots of sisters who spend time together; it is accepted as holy and beneficial. The nuns still will see God as virgins.

Marie eventually passes on, with Tilde to take over as abbess. Time marches on, no matter how beautiful and inconquerable a fortress you may create for yourself.

I loved it. The writing is beautiful, quick and brutal in parts but then flowery, delicate and elongated where needed. The passage of time feels slow at first and then fast, like life itself. Groff doesn't use quotation marks, which didn't bother me in the slightest. The world felt real, like I was reading a historical account of things that happened a thousand years ago, and yet the enormity of Marie as a character, to know herself, to become more than herself, to watch and protect her flock, it was immensely wondrous. I'd read a series of books about Marie if I could.