The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

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The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers
Buy The Cleaner of Chartres from Amazon.co.uk

Buy The Cleaner of Chartres from Amazon.com

Genre: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A novel whose qualities are impossible to pin down, beyond the excellent invention of the title character and the tragedies she underwent decades ago.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: November 2012
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 9780670922123

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Agnes is a mystery to the residents of Chartres, even as she goes about filling any shortfall in labour here, doing any odd job there, and cleaning for some of the people in and around the fabulous cathedral the town is so proud of – and, even in the end, cleaning the cathedral itself. There is an aged, dotty professor from Wales, two extremely curmudgeonly and bitter old gossips, and more than enough members of the order whose faith has lapsed. She seems perfectly willing to do anything one asks, so much so that one might ask why, although nobody seems to do so. The answers might be in the even-numbered chapters, which take us deeper into this character's extraordinary past, and to a linked series of quite tragic events…

This was my first example of Ms Vickers' work, although she is among just a handful of contemporary writers whose oeuvre my mother has almost fully explored. (Her snap verdict, recently, that she's not as versatile as Beryl Bainbridge was, but is a lot more consistently dependable.) I knew she had past form with warmly spiritual books, and this is definitely one more on the shelf. You have the immense cathedral as a subsidiary character for one, although at times the building is too grand, too imposing, that it is only ever seen in the light of people reacting to it. Chartres road names are dropped in, but the location does not completely come to life.

What does come to life is the elusive subject of Agnes and her past. One wonders how much of a mystery will be remaining, and for how long, with the structure of alternating chapters telling us so much the villagers do not know about her. But her life story has been given a great depth, even if some details do not seem to fit with the relevant time spans, of Agnes, in present times, as nearly forty, and other scenes of her teenage years. The gaps in the chronology are slowly filled in, with incredible craft at times, until past and present are fully intertwined.

In the end the book is one that is quite ridiculously difficult to review. I have left out almost all description of one half of the book, and one still has to be careful what one says about the rest. It doesn't try to be a thriller as such, but it leaves one really on tenterhooks for an inordinate time to find out just what kind of story we're getting – so much so I had completely finished the book before knowing how to structure my snap plot resume. I managed to make nit-picky notes, and comments such as the slight, negative ones above, but left no trace of what I really felt and when, as I could not see the bigger picture. That must, I think, be the main benefit of the book – that while the writing is excellent without ever being showy, the plotting vivacious and without any sign of the heavy crafting that alone could have created it – one is stuck, absorbed by the psychology and tragedy of this character, and in a safe car going mapless no-one can tell where.

It's not a book that hits you with a dazzling moment, or stuns with an overly dramatic twist or shock, it just builds, taking on surprises aplenty, and does its own thing. As such I nearly gave it a lower mark than the one I have. The very fact I sit here long after reading it, trying to itemise what was most memorable, and deciding to ignore what was less satisfactory (the arch comedy regarding the old women), proves I should rate this more highly. I can love or hate a book and rattle off a review promptly in either case. Here the merits of this are – like everything else – more subtle, and while I know I really liked this, I can't pinpoint why. Ask me if this has many deeper meanings and I will be left giving incredibly vague noises until you lose interest. Ask me if this was my kind of book all told, and I'd just shrug.

But ask me if Agnes was an incredible invention, and if the story of her life was well worth investigating, I would have to answer with an emphatic yes. Ask me whether this would succeed with a male, or female, or literary or general audience, I would answer again with yes – to all. I'd introduce Agnes to all, then – I just might not expect many people to be very eloquent in telling me what they make of her story.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For more French-based sagas of secrets, you cannot ignore Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel.

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