All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

The Cleaner Of Chartres – Salley Vickers

on October 25, 2012

The Cleaner Of Chartres
Salley Vickers
Penguin AU
2012. 298p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Agnès Morel has been living in the ancient cathedral town of Chartres for nearly 20 years. She was found sleeping on the porch of the cathedral one night and due to the kindness of several locals, found her way through enough odd jobs to get by, found a room to stay in exchange for helping look after an elderly lady and made a few friends. She keeps mostly to herself though, even though her dark looks, interesting clothes and eccentricity do attract some attention.

When the cleaner for the cathedral can no longer do the work because of rheumatism, the Abbè Paul asks Agnès to take on the job, knowing she cleans around the village for several of its inhabitants. Agnès is happy to, liking to keep busy and it isn’t long before she has other offers – to organise the papers of Professor Jones and to babysit Philippe Nevers’ very young nephew. In cleaning the cathedral, Agnès also meets Alain, who is working on the restoration and he immediately wants to strike up a friendship with her, despite her awkwardness.

But not everyone regards Agnès with such kind eyes. Her strange manner has attracted the attention of the jealous and spiteful Madame Beck, who asks Agnès to clean for her under the guise of observing her. When she believes that Agnès is responsible for something that goes missing in her apartment, she uses that as a reason to start a smear campaign of Agnès’ reputation and proves that she’s willing to drag up a painful, lonely past of a woman she doesn’t even know in order to make a petty point.

I’m not religious in any way and I usually don’t like reading books that contain religious themes. So when I knew this one was basically set in and around a famous cathedral, I had to do a little bit of research. I can still appreciate a gorgeous building:

This is the cathedral in Chartres (I nicked the picture from the Chartres Wikipedia page) where Agnès is employed to clean when the current cleaner is no longer able to continue. Agnès must be quite the war horse because it looks as though cleaning that, even only parts of it would be very extensive work. Construction was started in 1205 and took over 60 years and it’s been burned down several times in its lifetime and rebuilt. It’s a fabulous, gorgeous looking building and once I had a clear visual of it in my head, I was able to start the story.

The story is choppy, starting in present day Chartres and giving a brief history of the church before beginning to introduce us to Agnès but in a rather round-a-bout way. Her story is dolled out to the reader in dribs and drabs and speculation interspersed in the present day story, which is really just a very vague description of Agnès’ day to day life in Chartres: where she cleans and who for, the people she occasionally speaks to (there aren’t many, she has very few friends). I think that her story was supposed to make me really feel for her and pity her and I did pity her in some ways, because her childhood was the sort which would affect anyone in terms of their growing up – it would colour every thought and action. But I was unable to feel a connection with Agnès, I never really feel that I got to know her. She remained distant and vague to me, strangely inactive and passive to the events occurring around her.

This book is written in a quite lovely way, very descriptive and charming with a good knowledge of the history of Chartres and the cathedral and also religious tales and Greek mythology. I enjoyed the interactions of some of the other people in the town, particularly the toxic friendship of Madames Beck and Picot, ladies probably in their sixties who maintained a kind of friendly tone that hid careful, well-honed barbs towards each other. I think it was such clever, well thought out writing and the same could be said of Madame Beck’s jealousy towards Agnès and her seemingly good-intention desire to bring her down. But I would’ve liked a little more reasoning for why Madame Beck was set against her from the very beginning of the book, as it seemed very flimsy. I couldn’t quite get behind such maliciousness gossip-mongering.

I find this book quite hard to assess because there were times when I quite enjoyed it, however most of those times were when it wasn’t about Agnès. I think the remoteness I seemed to feel about her, made this book pretty difficult for me. It’s not a bad book, it’s written in a lovely way but it just wasn’t for me. I actually think I would’ve enjoyed this book a lot more if it had been structured with a linear narrative, starting with the beginning of Agnès’ story and taking us through her unhappy and often difficult life and working up to her arriving in Chartres. I think that would’ve definitely enabled me to really get to know her as a character a lot better and end up feeling a lot more for her.


Book #214 of 2012

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