A YOUNG woman is found asleep under a man’s coat on the North Porch of Chartres Cathedral. No-one knows who she is, where she has come from, or why she has ended up here.
The Cleaner Of Chartres
Yet by making herself useful, “in the small ways that help oil the wheels of daily life”, cleaning the cathedral, ironing clothes, babysitting and even, on occasion, sitting nude for a local painter, the mysterious Agnès Morel finds herself a place in the small, bustling community that becomes her home.
So begins Salley Vickers’ seventh novel, a magical and at times sinister story about love, loss, secrets and forgiveness. Vickers evokes Chartres with Chocolat-type charm, as its residents, including the gossipy Madame Beck and her spineless colleague Madame Picot, live their lives amongst the cobbles, the bakery shops and even a doll’s hospital, beneath the shadow of the cathedral.
Agnès makes for an unlikely heroine. Quiet and meek, she glides around Chartres cleaning for her various clients as well as scrubbing the cathedral itself, where she strikes up a close friendship with the restorer, Alain Fleury, who shares his breakfast with her and gently teaches her about the inner structure of the building. Meanwhile, she touches the lives of a number of locals, including the Professor Jones, a tenderly drawn elderly British gentleman who spends much of his time living in the past but is given new life by teaching Agnès to read, and the Abbé Bernard, who despite Agnès’s reputation as being a little “simple”, unburdens himself, and finds peace in talking to her about the distressing loss of his religious faith.
But Agnès is nursing a dark secret – one which slowly comes to light through a series of flashbacks of her youth, as we learn about the traumas that have shaped and blighted her adult life. Vickers, once a Jungian psychoanalyst, uses her professional expertise to peel back the layers of Agnès’s complex personality and problems, threading in along the way a number of colourful characters from the psychiatric profession (the voracious flirt and drinker Inès Nezat is a particular delight) who may well have been drawn from her real-life professional experiences.
Vickers evokes a cosy world, reminiscent of the 1950s and more innocent times. Her descriptions of food are particularly evocative. Every meal eaten by a character is a delight, as you might expect from a book set in France, yet she turns even a simple snack of bread, ham and cheese into the sort of gastronomic feast that will have you running to the kitchen to recreate it.
Her portrait of Chartres too is subtle but beautiful, centred as it is around the increasingly significant cathedral, often hidden behind “a wreathing veil of summer mist”.
At times slow and meandering, there is nevertheless a dark heart to this novel, as we learn more about Agnès and her past, and see the bitter actions of the two women who plot to expose her in the community she has worked so hard to make her home. This combines with the sometimes unpredictable and sinister actions of certain characters, to bring the book to a heart-stopping conclusion.
Vickers’ first novel, Miss Garnett’s Angel, a phenomenal word of mouth hit written 12 years ago, along with follow-ups including Mr Golightly’s Holiday and Dancing Backwards, have cemented her reputation as one of our favourite authors, with “a presence worth cherishing” as Phillip Pullman puts it.
Certainly, this latest novel, with its elegant story-telling, warm characters and rich inner world, will only enhance that presence. «
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