CLEANER OF CHARTRES, THE
Author: Salley Vickers
Viking RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Redemption and forgiveness are at the heart of Salley Vicker’s latest book, The Cleaner of Chartres. The cover hints at an intriguing tale – one in which mercy is valued more highly than judgment.
Twenty years ago Agnès Morel arrived in Chartres and was found sleeping on the north porch of the ancient cathedral. Now, the enigmatic, gentle guarded woman is seen each morning cleaning the cathedral. No one knows where she came from. And to some degree, nor does Agnès; as a newborn, she was found in a basket and taken to a convent. Whatever led her to Chartres as a young woman is something she won’t or can’t share; she skilfully deflects any interest in her past by making herself useful to others – as a cleaner, an organiser and a sometime artists’ model.
Her approach keeps questions at bay for about 20 years; even her only real friend, Terry, does not know Agnès’ past. All the townspeople see is a good woman who is dedicated to helping others. Without knowing how, those she helps sense that she has changed them in some subtle way. But one day, the spectre of Agnès’ past returns, provoking malicious speculation from the prejudiced Madame Beck and her gossipy companion Madame Picot. As the rumours grow more ugly, Agnès is forced to confront her history, and the mystery of her origins finally unfolds. Does she deserve redemption? Has justice been served? Madame Beck, acting on rumours, wants Agnès cast out from the cathedral. How can such a person be allowed to clean a holy place?
The Cleaner of Chartres is an unusual read – one of those books that some will love, others will not. It’s a slow-paced novel that jumps between past and present with little pattern or warning; while at times this can feel a bit disjointed and make the reading experience more complicated, I think that was the author’s intention (she has worked as a psychoanalyst). Our thoughts constantly shift between past and present; one trigger and our mind can shift back 20 years, just like that. Agnès has a lot buried underneath her gentle veneer; it’s fair to say her mind would constantly be in a state of flux.
The historical aspect, that which describes the cathedral’s background, is fascinating. I read the first two pages of the book to my husband and he was amazed at the work and devotion of those who helped rebuild the cathedral following a devastating fire in 1194. Agnès is drawn to the cathedral for its strange labyrinth (as well as, perhaps, some subconscious restorative pull); Vicker’s vivid description of the cathedral makes me want to add it to my “must-see” list. Vickers also uses some ancient Greek myths – especially that of the Minotaur and Ajax – to link to the characters’ stories, which will appeal to those with a good knowledge of mythology. They add depth to the story, prompting those who want to dig deeper to ask, who is the Minotaur? Is the labyrinth our mind?
Agnès is a remote character – in many ways, she holds herself back from the reader as much as from the other characters. This can be hard, especially when you really want to get to know a character. And yet, there was so much the reader did find out about Agnès: A motherless child, sent to a convent with a variety of “mother figures”; a traumatised teenager acting out her pain but misunderstood; a young woman the victim of injustice and at the centre of a terrible crime; a woman who helps others because she couldn’t help herself and to make up for her own actions. Of course she’s going to be detached, to hold back. I sympathised with her, but I also understood that about her. Perhaps readers who can connect with that desire to protect oneself will connect with her better.
Running through the book are strong themes of redemption (when is this justified and when not) and second chance, forgiveness (forgiving oneself is often the hardest), motherhood (there are several examples of mothers in this book, none of them particularly outstanding), religion (what role it plays, good and bad) and loss/trauma. For book clubs, there is great scope for discussion: Do childhood experiences excuse later actions? What should happen to Agnès? And does everyone, as the character Alain Fleury suggests, have a murderer in them?
A well-written, if complex, book, The Cleaner of Chartres made me think about many things, particularly that of redemption. I liked how this theme shone strongly through the characters, the cathedral, and decisions made at the end. Maybe that’s my optimistic nature; my husband says I always see the good in people. I’m interested to hear what others think about it – that’s the good thing about reading, we can all have completely different experiences to a book.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin Books Australia.
Bookish treat: Sauteed mushrooms and bacon with a little cream and coarsely ground black pepper – cooked by a character in the book. Sounds divine.