When Viking asked me to review the novel “The Cleaner of Chartres” by Salley Vickers, I initially hesitated. My reading preferences generally run to non-fiction (political books and periodicals, biographies of historical figures, etc.); however, I just love a good mystery, particularly a murder mystery written by any of the great ladies of the genre – Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rhinehart, Dorothy L. Sayers, to name but a few of my favorites. Since I was assured that this was, indeed, a mystery novel, I agreed to review it.
Alas, there are no murders, and, while I cannot rank “The Cleaner of Chartres” among the greats, it is a very good read.
|The Cathedral of Chartres|
The main character, Agnès Morel, who cleans the Cathedral of Chartres, arrives in the town surrounded by a trinity of mysteries from her past: Who were her parents? Who fathered her baby? What happened to that baby?
|North Transept Rose Window|
The Cathedral of Chartres, considered to be the most magnificent example of gothic architecture in all of France, is a central character in the story, and the author describes it in beautiful detail. In an interview in The Guardian, the British author talked about her parents, who, though committed Communists and devout atheists, took her to visit the great cathedrals of Europe as a child. While they may have looked upon the Roman Catholic faith with a jaundiced eye, they were clearly enamored of the great edifices it inspired, and they passed that admiration on to their daughter, Salley.
There is no question that Salley Vickers, a former Jungian psychoanalyst, is a very talented writer. Her writing is quite elegant in the classic tradition and flows beautifully. When it comes to turning a phrase, she delivers some beauties. One of my favorites was a take on a phrase I remember from childhood, “Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Workshop.” Vickers clever take is, “….the devil pitches his tent in the spaces of procrastination…” Now THAT’s a visual image that sticks with you.
Since the time line bounces back and forth between Agnès’ past and her present, Vickers uses the literary trick of giving each chapter the name of a place to orient the reader – for example, “Rouen” (the past), “Chartres” (the present).
She is at her best describing landscapes and nature, in general. Her descriptions of birds, in particular, are so vivid you can almost hear them chirp.
Her characters, however, were less vivid to me. Many of the physical descriptions of her characters are pretty cursory, and I was unable to get a clear image of most of them. I like to have a picture in my head of what the characters I’m reading about look like. It’s a way of keeping them neatly sorted in my mind and helps me to connect with them. Beyond the fact that Agnès has dark skin, dark eyes, is slender and wears colorful clothes, I was unable to create a satisfying image of her in my mind.
In fact, the character of Agnès is, and is clearly meant to be, elusive. She is part of the mystery that surrounds her. She is illiterate, speaks very little and is emotionally repressed. When men were attracted to her, I found myself asking, “Why?” She is the least interesting character in the novel, and Vickers wisely surrounds her with much more interesting ones. Actually, my favorite was a no-nonsense Australian nurse who makes only a brief appearance, but has a big impact on Agnès’ future, as we later learn.
The rest of the characters are the usual, French small-town types -- middle-aged busybody, absent-minded professor, penniless artist with talent, successful artist with no talent, gay man with impeccable taste, priest with religious doubts, nice nuns, nasty nuns, nun who runs off with priest, etc., etc., etc.
Let me leave you with two final thoughts on “The Cleaner of Chartres”:
1) It’s a good read; and
2) I believe the author is better than her material, so I look forward to Ms. Vickers’ next novel to see what develops.