About the Book
There is something special about the ancient cathedral of Chartres, with its mismatched spires, astonishing stained glass and strange labyrinth. And there is something special too about Agnès Morel, the mysterious woman who is to be found cleaning it each morning.
No one quite knows where she came from – not the diffident Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping in the north porch; nor lonely Professor Jones, whose chaotic existence she helps to organise; nor Philippe Nevers, whose neurotic sister and newborn child she cares for; nor even the irreverent young restorer, Alain Fleury, who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes, her colourful clothes and elusive manner. And yet everyone she encounters would surely agree that she is subtly transforming their lives, even if they couldn’t quite say how.
But with a chance meeting in the cathedral one day, the spectre of Agnès’ past returns, provoking malicious rumours from the prejudiced Madame Beck and her gossipy companion Madame Picot. As the hearsay grows uglier, Agnès is forced to confront her history, and the mystery of her origins finally unfolds.
Format: Paperback (304 pages) Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 23rd May 2013 Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Find The Cleaner of Chartres on Goodreads
Disclosure: If you buy a book via the above link, I may earn a commission from Bookshop.org, whose fees support independent bookshops
As if the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge weren’t difficult enough, I decided to make it even harder for myself by constructing my list from the twenty oldest unread paperbacks on my bookshelves. And vowing to read them in date order. Yes, I know. I also decided to adopt a ruthless approach: if a book isn’t working for me, I’ll set it aside, put it in the pile for the charity shop and pick up the next one. It turns out The Cleaner of Chartres is a keeper and, in what I’m sure is going to become a boringly familiar phrase, I can’t for the life of me think why it’s taken me so long to read it.
The story of Agnès past, revealed in small sections alongside present day events, is compelling and emotional. It’s a story of loss, cruelty, mental trauma and despair followed by a gradual step-by-step rebuilding of her life once she arrives in Chartres, drawn there by nothing more than the memory of a picture of the interior of the cathedral that hung on a wall.
What really brought the book alive for me was the wonderfully drawn cast of secondary characters, such as Agnès’s dogwalker friend Terry, artist Robert Clement, obsessed with creating a painting of the Madonna, and cathedral restorer Alain Fleury who can’t help sharing his knowledge of the history, architecture and legends associated with the cathedral. ‘Information bubbled out of him like champagne.’ Then there are Madame Beck and Madame Picot, two ‘friends’ who have made acquiring and disseminating town gossip something of a competitive sport. I also loved Abbé Paul, the priest who discovered Agnès sleeping in the cathedral porch and gave her a job as a cleaner. His affection for her is extremely touching.
My absolute favourite character was Dr Deman who I found a very sympathetic figure. He comes to play a significant part in Agnès life and is one of the few people in her early life to treat her with any kindness, to really listen to her and try to understand why she might have acted as she did. Like a lot of the other people in the book, he’s not a one dimensional character. Whilst devoted to his job, he often questions himself – undersells himself, I would argue. ‘He cared – cared passionately – for the things he cared for but his conviction was liable to waver and be derailed.’
The Cleaner of Chartres is a book that exudes warmth but is by no means overly sentimental. There are also some lovely touches of humour, mostly supplied by Madame Beck and Madame Picot. It’s very cleverly constructed, not only in respect of the revealing of Agnès story, but because of the way in which all the characters undergo some kind of transformation whether that’s coming to terms with events in their past, forging a new path in life or renewing a friendship.
In three words: Engaging, emotional, heartwarming
About the Author
Salley Vickers was born in Liverpool, the child of communist parents. She grew up in Stoke-on-Trent, living in Barlastan Hall, where her father was warden of a W.E.A. college that taught adult education to Trades Union workers. She moved to London aged three and lived there for the remainder of her childhood.
She wrote her first novel, The Door Into Time, aged nine, thanks to an enterprising primary school teacher. The novel is lost but she believes it has influenced all her subsequent work and she regards her education at this state primary school as some of the most nourishing she has been lucky enough to receive. It is a source of great regret to her, that the current primary school curriculum is so narrow and so uncreative.
Her greatest love is poetry, which she writes badly, and her three grandchildren, whom she sees as often as they allow. She also likes music, especially opera and 60s/70s rock, walking, gardening and dancing. Her first ambition was to be a ballet dancer. One of her greatest pleasures is being able to take her granddaughter to the ballet.
She has worked as a teacher for children with special needs, for the now defunct ILEA, a tutor for the W.E.A. and for the Oxford Department of Continuing Education, a university lecturer in English, a psychoanalyst and she now writes and lectures fulltime.
She divides her time between London and Wiltshire, with regular retreats to Corfu, where she has made many friends, both with Corfiots and Albanians. (Photo/bio: Author website)