“The Cleaner of Chartres” by Salley Vickers (2012) – 297 pages
In my continuing quest to read excellent fiction, I had a choice to make. I could read one of the novels on the 2013 Man Booker longlist, or I could read “The Cleaner of Chartres” by Salley Vickers. I chose to read “Cleaner”, and now after completing that novel I believe I made the correct decision.
This is the fourth Salley Vickers novel I’ve read. ‘The Cleaner of Chartres’ is ultimately a delightful read. However ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’, ‘The Other Side of You’ and ‘Dancing Backwards’ were smooth glides for me compared to reading ‘The Cleaner of Chartres’. The main character in “The Cleaner of Chartres” is the quiet unassuming enigmatic Agnes Morel who works as a cleaner at the Chartres Cathedral which is 50 miles southwest of Paris. The novel starts with alternating chapters of Agnes’ life today at Chartres and chapters of Agnes at 15 in Rouen 23 years ago. Somehow I must have missed important directions about how these chapters were juxtaposed, and that left me somewhat disoriented. Also the two story lines had totally separate casts of characters except for Agnes, and that was a lot of characters to deal with early on in the story. However after a hundred pages or so, the Rouen chapters go away and we deal solely with Agnes’ life here and now at Chartres, and from then on I could focus on Vickers’ always fascinating interaction of characters. The ending of the novel more than made up for my confusion at the beginning.
Even though “The Cleaner of Chartres” takes place in modern times, it feels almost like a medieval story. In both sections many of the characters are abbes’ or nuns, and much of the novel takes place in that giant ancient Chartres cathedral. Only once in a while will there be a mention of wi-fi or a car trip, and these references feel almost out of place.
Can a serious or literary novel be pleasurable too? I would say that of course they should be pleasurable; otherwise why would we choose to read them in the first place? One could say that “The Cleaner of Chartres” deals with a serious subject, the redemption of a person, a life, but along the way, we enjoy the people we meet. Some are humorous; some take a real interest in helping other people. We even enjoy watching the villains of the story operate, and “The Cleaner of Chartres” does indeed have its villains. Redemption is a serious subject, but why not throw in a little romance along the way also?
Somehow I get a Charles Dickens vibe while reading Salley Vickers. The Dickens vibe is especially there in “The Cleaner of Chartres” with its foundling hero Agnes, the two neighbors Mrs. Beck and Mrs. Picot, and fellow cleaner Alain. Vickers in her writing makes you feel that every moment is well worth living even if you are only a cleaner in a cathedral.