1st Nov 2012
The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers
The latest novel from Salley Vickers, the author of several bestsellers including the word-of-mouth success Miss Garnet’s Angel, The Cleaner of Chartres is a wonderful but slightly disconcerting mix of whimsy and gravity.
Agnès Morel is the eponymous cleaner. Brought up by nuns, she arrived in Chartres one rainy evening twenty years ago and was found sleeping in the porch of the cathedral by Abbé Paul. No-one knows where she came from and any questions are calmly but definitely rebuffed.
Agnès is a quiet fixture in everyone’s life. She takes charge of sorting out Professor Jones’ apartment, bringing order to the chaos as well as relieving his loneliness; she is someone for the elderly Abbé Bernard to tell about his disquieting nightmares; and she helps Philippe Nevers deal with his rather hideous sister and her baby. She also catches the eye of Alain Fleury, one of the men working on the cathedral restoration.
Not everyone in Chartres appreciates her presence, however. Madame Beck is a bitter and disappointed woman who is subconsciously prejudiced against Agnès due to her similarity in appearance to one of the late Monsieur Beck’s conquests.
When she meets Mother Veronique, from the convent where Agnès grew up, she discovers something about the cleaner’s past which shocks everyone.
The chapters set in Chartres are, largely, light-hearted. Although there is always a more serious undertone (especially apparent in the case of Abbé Bernard, whose deterioration into senility is sensitively written), the overall tone is witty and enjoyable, with interaction between Madame Beck and her rival Madame Picot, a slightly less acidic version of her friend, particularly enjoyable.
What makes the novel slightly disconcerting is that these chapters are interspersed with chapters detailing Agnès’ early life – from being discovered in a basket by a farmer to her being sent away from the convent in disgrace when it’s discovered that she is pregnant. The tone is a far cry from the more frivolous Chartres chapters, as Agnès is taken to a secure hospital following the removal of her child.
The deft juxtaposition of the two very different threads make The Cleaner of Chartres a more interesting and thought-provoking read than the blurb indicates, although anyone who has read any of Vickers’ other books will not be expecting anything too fluffy. Despite the more serious narrative sections, this is an excellent book for reading in one long session, with well-drawn characters and an absorbing story.
Recommended for: Anyone who likes their light-hearted novels with a bit of bite and a lot of heart.