The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers
Before introducing us to Agnès, the novel begins by telling us about the great cathedral, how it burned and was rebuilt by an army of unknown craftsmen …
Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’, Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was give to these fanciful notions.
Right from the start, we are entranced by the mystery of Agnès with her topaz eyes. She was found in a basket by a farmer, who left her with the nuns at Rouen to bring up. When she was a teenager, things happened, and she ended up in psychiatric care under the kind Dr Deman. It will take most of the book for Agnès’ backstory to be teased out gently, only then reaching a climax when the past threatens to eclipse the present.
It is in the present, twenty years later, that we learn about Agnès’ nurturing nature as she cleans and babysits for the residents of Chartres, taking on the job of cleaning the cathedral itself when the old cleaner became too infirm. It was Abbé Paul that had found her when she arrived in the city homeless those years ago, helping her to find lodgings and work.
She is a quiet woman, having a few good friends and she is trusted by those who use her services, yet her exotic appearance does attract the attention of the town busybody Madame Beck. Meanwhile Agnès attracts some rather more welcome attention in Alain, a craftsman working on a restoration project – there is a mutual attraction there, which doesn’t get past Madame Beck’s eagle eyes. Beck decides to employ Agnès, always looking for a way to disparage her, and when one of her antique dolls goes missing – she starts her campaign against Agnès in earnest.
As the author said herself when I saw her speak the other evening Agnès is very much a catalyst for action in those she meets, bringing out their latent qualities. From being painter Robert’s muse, or a shoulder to lean on for the increasingly bewildered Father Bernard, to becoming the focus of the bigoted Madame Beck’s attentions. She inspires love though too: in Dr Deman, in a kind of reverse transference when a patient falls for their doctor; unrequited love in Professor Jones whom she works for; and fatherly love in Jean, the farmer who found her whom she looks after in his declining years.
There are moments of humour too, one notable segment concerns two of the nuns who brought her up, (one nice, one nasty) when they come on a visit to Chartres.
Sister Laurence had taken the opportunity to escape to the north aisle of the nave. When Mother Véronique tracked her down, Sister Laurence declared that she had decided that her favourite window was Noah and the flood. She particularly liked, she said, the pink elephants and striped pigs.
‘Boars,’ corrected Mother Véronique.
‘Oh yes, of course, “boars”,’ repeated Sister Laurence with seeming meekness but with enough of a treasonous glint in her voice for Mother Véronique to embark on a lengthy account of the life of St Lubin.
This is sensitive storytelling at its best with a cracking character-driven plot that gradually increases in tension as Agnès’ story is revealed. We are all smitten by her, but also by the cathedral itself. Who wouldn’t want to visit it after reading this wonderful novel and maybe find themselves as Agnès does in its labyrinth. (10/10)
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers, Penguin paperback.