The Cleaner of Chartres

Cleaner of ChartresI could not miss the opportunity to read Salley Vickers new book set in the region of Beauce in central France and the well-known town of Chartres with its famous cathedral, its mysterious labyrinth (which has inspired many authors to pen stories) and an intriguing blurb of the redemptive power of love and community in the famous French town.

Agnès is found as a baby wrapped in a basket by a peasant farmer, the only clue to the parentage of the young nursling, a single turquoise earring lying in the bottom of the basket. The farmer, unsure what to do with the infant, but knowing it beyond his capability to take care of a newborn, deposits her at a convent, leaving the nuns to take care of her. Which, in their own way they do, though it does not prevent her from being judged and misunderstood by the pious community, even though it might be inferred that it was they who made her vulnerable to the events that would follow.

“Agnès is the saint to whom young women pray for husbands, and, since Jean Dupère, who had found the baby, presumed the foundling’s mother had none, he named the anonymous woman’s daughter after the saint.”

chartres_labyrinthe

The labyrinth of Chartres

The story is narrated simultaneously during two different time periods in Agnès’ life, as a young girl during her various stays in mental health institutions and as an adult in the town of Chartres, where she lives an independent life cleaning the still famous Notre-Dame cathedral as well as various other local villagers homes, characters who bring the pages to life with their flaws, foibles and fantasies, whom Vickers just manages not to let fall into becoming cliché.

There is an underlying sadness to the story, as it seems that Agnes attracts bad luck and as a reader, we can’t help wishing for a lucky break or that people around her could just be kinder or more observant of who she is as a person and not to judge people on how they look or what has been said of them.  Like Deborah Batterman’s character Charlotte in her excellent short story, Crazy Charlotte, Vicker’s shows the potential destructive power of that evil tongue, community gossip.

“Agnès had no clear idea why she had fled to the crypt, but for her, unlike Father Bernard, it was the very opposite of the haunt of the diabolical. On the contrary, it had always seemed to her a hallowed place. Old and still and unjudging.  Unjudging was what she most craved.”

Chartres CathedralWhile The Cleaner of Chartres is no comedy, Vickers depiction of a French town/village reminded me a little of Julia Stuart’s delightful book The Matchmaker of Perigord, a fabulous light read that also excels in depicting the essence of local French villagers. Some of the most enjoyable moments in reading are in the simple narration of everyday life, the interactions between two people, in particular where those meetings bring about a small positive change. So many of Agnès’ interactions have the potential for this, the fact that so few of them eventuate, makes them all the sweeter when they do.

Overall, a pleasant read, although I was a little disappointed with the ending, which I felt should have revealed more than it did.

Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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15 thoughts on “The Cleaner of Chartres

  1. Claire , Have read this book and liked your review. Beautiful story with authentic background. Have you ever visited Chartre? Did you ever read that horror story by Stephen Sparrow? I now in full care at Home of Compassion Silverstream Am OK given the illness I have . Love Uncle Brian O’C

    Sent from my iPhone

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    • Hi Brian, I’d love to visit the town and the cathedral, I have also read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth which intrigues. I have a queue of books i have promised to read, so no haven’t got to Rahnuk yet, believe it or not, August was too busy to get much read.

      I hope you are happy in your new digs, I think of you often and shall send you an old-fashioned letter. I hope you’ve managed to get your hands on The Luminaries. Much love Claire x

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  2. Sounds like a lovely book with a whisper of French village life. You mentioned 2 different time periods in the young girl’s life. Question: what is the timeline of the story? In what year is this all taking place? I could’nt find the info in the review.

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  3. Wonderful review, Claire! The start of the book makes me think of Eva Ibbotson’s ‘The Star of Kazan’ which has a similar start. The story looks beautiful and a little bit sad. I loved the fact that Agnès treats the crypt as her sanctuary. That passage you have quoted is quite beautiful. I loved this phrase from your review – “Agnès’ life”. I love the fact that you didn’t put a second ‘s’ after the apostrophe, because the noun ended with an ‘s’. I do that too and I refuse to change inspite of what Strunk and White or Francine Prose or anyone else might say. English is a quirky and unusual language with a lot of exceptions in grammar and I love it that way 🙂

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    • You know Vishy, I think that’s one of the reasons I really like to read Cormac McCarthy, in fact, I would say he is one of my favourite authors, he abandons many conventions of punctuation and his words look clean on the page, allowing the reader to not be distracted by marks and to delve deeper into the meaning behind them. I’ve a long way to go to become like that, but I’m happy to abandon the extra s because it just looks ridiculous and makes the reader pause too much to ponder it. Though having said that, perhaps I failed, because it caused you to pause and ponder 🙂

      The piece of flash fiction I wrote that I posted here A Man’s Best Friend is a kind of tribute to the style of McCarthy.

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      • Thanks for telling me about Cormac McCarthy, Claire. I feel sad that I haven’t read any of his books yet. I have his ‘All the Pretty Horses’ in my bookshelf. I will try to read that soon. It is interesting that he abandons the conventions of punctuation which makes the reader delve deep into the meaning of the words. Glad to know that you don’t like the extra ‘s’ 🙂 One of my friends used to say that the extra ‘s’ hurt her eyes. I enjoyed pausing and pondering because of the lack of the extra ‘s’ 🙂 Thanks for making me do that.

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  4. I’m hiding my head in shame. You’ve just reminded me that a friend gave me a copy of this earlier in the summer and it’s still sitting on my shelf not only un-read but also completely forgotten. Shall I ever hold my head up again?

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    • Raise your head dear friend, the weekend has only just begun and the book now moves onto your pile where it can be seen! The summer is only just over and the sun is still shining here, so go forth and enjoy your reading 🙂 I am happy to have been the conduit of a subtle reminder.

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  5. It wasn’t just the ending that I found disappointing. The whole novel seemed rather insubstantial to me. I did however enjoy the delicious humour of the two widows who can’t stand each other but meet regularly for coffee and cake just so they can gossip and preen..

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