In order to satisfy my France cravings now that I’m in Asia, I’ve been reading quite a few novels that take place in France. I found one, The Cleaner of Chartres, to be particularly special and wanted to share it with you.
The Cleaner of Chartres, by Salley Vickers, tells the story of Agnès Morel, a quiet and steadfast young woman who tends the ancient cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres, France. A longtime resident of Chartres, her past is troubled and masked in mystery.
While the story begins innocuously with a simple-seeming protagonist who cleans a cathedral, as it continues many tragedies and wrongdoings come to light. This novel is far from a beach-read; it touches on heavy themes such as deceit, abandonment and both the frailty and fortitude of the human spirit.
Where this novel particularly excels is in creating a sense of place; at times I honestly felt transported back to France. I particularly loved the sensory impact of sentences that made my heart (and stomach) ache: “Without needing to be summoned, a waiter appeared with a small tray of café crème, a basket of fresh baguette, a slap of pale butter and a dish of apricot jam.”
I was also impressed by the deftness of Vicker’s prose; Salley Vickers is undoubtedly a skilled writer who conveys complex ideas and philosophies with grace.
“What did it say in the Book of Revelation? Professor Jones had abandoned his Christian faith with his short trousers but he had not forgotten the teaching of his chapel upbringing. “There shall be time no longer,” the angel of Revelation said. Time no longer. Is that not what death is, thought Professor Jones. For since the world is known to us only through our experience of it, does its existence not, in some crucial way, come to an end when we do? And is not heaven, then, merely the fact of non-existence? The loss of the fear of loss, which haunts and casts its shadow over so much of human life.”
I did struggle with a few points in the novel; the story moved back and forth through time too quickly and I found myself turning back pages to gain a grasp on the story’s timeline. I also had difficulty keeping track of the plethora of characters and all of their backstories.
Overall The Cleaner of Chartres was a wonderful read that would appeal to any fellow francophile, particularly those who have or would like to visit Chartres Cathedral.
Have you read The Cleaner of Chartres yet? Would you be interested in doing so?
. . . . . . . . . . .
Viking and Penguin Books Publicity provided me with a copy of the novel in exchange for a review. They in no way requested I give a favorable review.