‘The Cleaner of Chartres’ by Salley Vickers

“The Cleaner of Chartres” by Salley Vickers (2012) – 297 pages

chartres2

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.

16158583 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.

Advertisements

8 responses to this post.

  1. I need to read her. For some reason I wasn’t too tempted by this when I saw it in the book shop but now I think I’d like it. Good to know that there could be confusion in the beginning. And I love Chartres Cathedral. I spent a great day there.

    Like

    Reply

    • Hi Caroline,
      I’ve found all 4 of Salley Vickers’ novels that I’ve read a real pleasure. One word that comes to mind to describe her writing is ‘vivacious’.
      Never been to Chartres myself, but my guess is that it is spectacular.

      Like

      Reply

  2. This book just didn’t grab me at all. Some parts were good (the two widows who kept meeting for a bitching gossipy session were fun characters) but overall it lacked depth for me.I know Vickers has a strong following but on the basis of this one I wont become part of that

    Like

    Reply

    • Hi BookerTalk,
      “The Cleaner of Chartres” took me awhile to win me over, but by the end it did. I do believe the parts that don’t take place at Chartres were handled clumsily, could have been done better as a flashback, but after that I got caught up in the story.
      So far I’ve only read one from the Booker longlist, “The Testament of Mary” by Colm Toibin, which I didn’t like very much, but I’m reading one now that is much, much better. A review will appear shortly. I’m somewhat disappointed that Kate Atkinson didn’t make even the longlist, because I don’t think there could be 13 eligible novels that are better this year.

      Like

      Reply

  3. Tony, I must read this now. I did read a bad review somewhere, and though I don’t pay much attention to reviews, I am glad I found yours to balance it. I very much enjoyed Dancing Backwards.

    Like

    Reply

  4. Hi Kat,
    I suppose it was “Miss Garnet’s Angel’ that got Vickers famous in the first place, more by word of mouth rather than critics. As for “Cleaner”, most of the reviews I’ve seen have been quite positive including the Guardian who called it ‘intricately plotted’ and ‘explores the darker side of human nature with the lightest touch’. I agree with both phrases.

    Like

    Reply

  5. I recently went to see Salley Vickers talk about this book, and she was as interesting in person as her novel which I adored. She talked about Agnes being a catalyst, affecting those around her – not necessarily always positively, but remaining unchanged/true to herself. I could certainly identify that in the novel, and I loved the evocation of Chartres.

    Like

    Reply

    • Hi Gaskella,
      I’m sure it was interesting to hear and see Salley Vickers, and there are not many authors I would say that about.
      I can see Agnes a a catalyst, not saying much but still shining with her spirit.
      Perhaps one of these years the Booker people will wake up…

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: