Book: The Cleaner of Chartres (Pub in U.K. 2012, NEW in U.S.July 2013) by Salley Vickers
Let me say right away that if you are planning to visit Chartres, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Cleaner of Chartres: A Novel would be an invaluable background book to read. I was fascinated with learning the history of Chartres cathedral, the symbolism of its stained glass windows and statuary, its crypt with no burials, and to know about the ancient labyrinth. I”m sure that I’ll remember the details of Chartres much more clearly than had I read about it in a dry guidebook.
However (you kinda knew that was coming, didn’t you?) I haven’t decided whether I really liked the book as a novel or not. It is an odd predicament to be in. Generally, I know after a few pages whether this is a book for me, or possibly not for me but for someone else, or this is a book that should have been cooked a bit longer. But this one leaves me with a lot of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.”
The main character (besides the Cathedral itself), a very odd woman with a unique background is unusual because she seems to be a savant not only of the mind but of the soul. (Unlearned but with unique understanding.) On the other hand, I’m not sure that I cared deeply about her. Agnès is a simple soul, illiterate but shrewd in her observations. Salley Vickers‘ style, flat and matter-of-fact, may represent its main character as much as its author. However, the style of the writing may have been responsible for my inability to become deeply engrossed in the cleaner’s story.
Agnès Morel was found in the woods on St. Agnes day by a farmer hunting mushrooms–hence the name. He took the baby in the basket to a nearby convent, where she was raised by nuns. She gave birth to an infant son before she was 16. (I won’t tell the whole story of her pregnancy and baby because it is slowly revealed as the books unfolds.) The baby is taken away and Agnès spends time in a mental hospital before winding up in Chartres, where she cleans people’s homes, baby sits and cleans the cathedral.
The reader is drawn in by a string of mysteries that unfold ever so deliberately as we follow the labyrinthan path of Agnès present day life in Chartres and flash back to the detective work of a psychologist who treated Agnès when she was young. We see her interacting with a cast of characters as varied as those portrayed in the artwork of the Cathedral–an almost comical pair of older ladies–one of whom becomes the representative of malice; with an old priest who is losing his grip on reality and another who seems to approach life calmly but inside is full of doubts. There’s a confidant girlfriend and a young gay man Agnès used to babysit for and his philandering sister who neglects her own baby.
The male psychologist interacts with female head of a different mental health institution, with the nuns that kept Agnès and with the farmer who found the baby originally as the doctor tries to determine what truly happened in the young woman’s early life.
All these characters question their own behavior or the behavior of others. Motive is always a subject. Abbé Paul, the calm but doubting priest:
He was all too aware that even those who see clearly into the souls of others rarely see themselves quite as they are.
Besides some unraveling of a mystery, we see people struggle with their belief or disbelief in God and in science, and we see people seeking and mistrusting love of various kinds. I appreciate the symbolism of the labyrinth as various characters in various ways try to work out the difference between belief and truth. There is indeed a surprise toward the end, but one I found totally out of sync with the story.
The story line is original and the characters varied, if sometimes a bit too typical. On the other hand, the ending of the novel seems all too pat–tying up all loose ends neatly in a “lovers hold hands and stroll toward the setting sun” kind of ending.
And yet–if you are traveling to Chartres, for heavens sake, don’t listen to my doubts–read the book for its magnificent focus on the cathedral.
Other reading on Chartres Cathedral and the author
If you are traveling to Chartres Cathedral.
Salley Vickers book set in Venice, Miss Garnet’s Angel.
A favorable review of The Cleaner of Chartres in the Guardian Newspaper on line.
Notes: This book was provided by the publisher for review, which does not change my opinions which I try to render candidly. Photos are from Flickr, used with a Creative Commons license. You can click on any photo to learn more about the photographer. Links from the book title and cover lead to Amazon, with whom I have a financial relationship. That means that if you use my links to shop at Amazon, you will be supporting A Traveler’s Library. THANKS!