The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

How lovely it is to fall into the hands of a natural storyteller, who tells her story with such lovely and well-chosen words and with such understanding of every element of her story.

And when she sets her story around the beautiful and historic cathedral at Chartres, well that really is the icing on the cake.

Agnès Morel and was found by Abbé Paul on a rainy night. Sleeping peacefully in the porch of the cathedral. She wouldn’t say where she came from, indeed she wouldn’t say anything about her past.

She found a place to live, helping  her elderly landlady in lieu of rent, and she found bits and pieces of work. Cleaning mainly – just enough to get her by. She lived quietly, making just a few friends, but her eccentric dress and strange demeanour did attract a little attention.

When the cathedral’s elderly cleaner began to struggle with his work, the Abbè Paul asked Agnès to help. That gave her respectability and she was offered more jobs  – organising the papers of Professor Jones,  babysitting Philippe Nevers’ young nephew.

Agnès took on every job that she was offered. She liked to be busy, and to be needed.

While she was cleaning the cathedral, Agnès met Alain, who was working on the restoration. He was smitten, but she felt awkward and didn’t know what to do.

All of this had a natural charm, and it was brought to life by a wonderful mis of characters, all real and recognisable. Salley Vickers shone a soft light on their hearts and minds, just enough to illuminate them. I saw their hopes, I saw their fears, and I understood.

But others were less taken with Agnès. Madame Beck, jealous of the attention that she attracts and taking a dim view of her reticence,  askedAgnès to clean for her. Just so that she can keep an eye on her.

In time, inevitably, Madame Beck found something amiss. She blamed Agnès, and she sets about digging up her past to make her point. And when she met a nun from the convent where Agnès was raised, then she knew she was right. But was she?

Agnès had a painful past, and her story was threaded through the stories of the people of Chartres. A strange juxtaposition, but it worked.

It allowed Sally Vickers to paint all sides of humanity: generosity, selfishness, malice, greed, fear, courage, humour …

The story was beautifully written, the setting so very well evoked, and the history of Chartres came into play quite naturally.

The heroine was a little elusive, but her story was so extraordinary that I think that was probably for the best.

It did leave a gap though. And that’s the one thing that makes The Cleaner of Chartres a little less than perfect.

10 responses

  1. This sounds like a beautiful read. I have only read one Salley Vickers novel and would like to give her another try. She is coming to Cambridge Wordfest in November to talk about this book and I am thinking about going along. Thanks for the review.

  2. I really enjoy Vicker’s books. I’ve read Miss Garnet’s Angel, The Other Side of You, Instances of the Number 3, and Dancing Backwards. I look forward to this one too. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  3. Pingback: A quiet novel with emotional depth | Annabel's House of Books

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