The Cleaner of Chartres
Author Salley Vickers
Publisher: Penguin 2012
Paperback Edition: 298 pages
Source: Personal copy
A medieval cathedral, completely rebuilt after a fire in 1194, is located in the old French town of Chartres. The author Salley Vickers transports readers to this place and as we live in the story she tells, we come to know something of this interesting building with its fascinating details.
Her heroine, a special woman named Agnes Morel cleans the famed place and does other odd jobs in the community. We spend time with her and learn her rather desperate story in bits and pieces. We meet some of the townspeople and so come to know her community. Agnes’ story of loss, confusion, and despair is rendered more mysterious by the author’s use of time and place. Like the details of Agnes and her experiences, time and place are not ordered as we might expect. This is both illuminating and confusing.
An orphan, Agnes is a character who climbs into the reader’s heart. One wants to touch and mend her like the Doll Doctor fixes a broken doll in the story. This novel demands careful reading. Pay attention to the many minor characters. The wise writing requires thoughtfulness. It is not a long tale and is written lightly, the better to deal with its profound themes: anger, terror, confusion, despair, loss and grief. Though Agnes is a character unable to read, she asks profound questions. “Is it because death is good that God allows it?”
Ordinary people fill this tale. No one is larger than life. In spite of a beautiful old cathedral and a mysterious crypt, the story is not other worldly. Its despairs are all too real. As such, it is an entirely thought-provoking tale. I look forward to hearing the author speak about the book at the Festival of Faith and Writing next spring. There is so much more to know.