A few days ago, I found myself on the steps of Sacré-Cœur at 6am as it opened its doors to Paris's earliest worshippers, the breathtakingly silent candle-lit interior a world away from the hustle and bustle of the heaving masses of tourists. A similar experience was the inspiration behind The Cleaner of Chartres by psychoanalyst-turned-novelist, Salley Vickers.
After a sleepless night in the medieval French city in 2010, Vickers found herself walking past the cathedral as a lone cleaning lady let herself in to set about her work. Marvelling at the "intimacy" of this woman's relationship with the historic building, the seed for her story was planted.
Agnès Morel first arrives in Chartres a young woman of 19. Although not quite as "weary and footsore" as the pilgrims who traditionally made their way to the cathedral, she enters the town "heart sore", scarred by the loss and lack of her childhood – abandoned by her mother, brought up by nuns in a convent, then institutionalised after a breakdown in her mid-teens.
She makes the city her home for 20 years, slowly becoming part of it and its inhabitants' lives: kindly Abbé Paul, who slipped a 20 franc note into her coat pocket as she slept in the North Porch on the night she arrived; the artist Robert Clément, for whom she sits; lonely Professor Jones, whose marriage fell apart while he was studying the cathedral's sculpture; elderly Abbé Bernard, who suffers the tortures of religious uncertainty; the flamboyant Philippe Nevers, whom she babysat as a child and now tends to his newborn nephew; and Alain Fleury, the outspoken restorer working high up in the cathedral's eaves.
Into this cast of colourful characters walk two figures from Agnès's childhood, from whom the town busybody, Madame Beck, makes it her business to illicit the so-called "truth" about the cleaning lady's troubled past. With these ghosts "churned up", "like a dangerous wreck under the sea ready to rise up and hole her fragile raft", Agnès struggles to hold her head above water as Madame Beck's flame-tipped tongue ignites the rumour mill, and worse.
With its subtle combination of explorations of faith and love, The Cleaner of Chartres is something of a return to the terrain of Vickers's first novel, the bestseller, Miss Garnet's Angel. Certainly, it's another gem, Vickers's psychoanalytic training informing her every word without ever obscuring the creative project. Each character is drawn with skilful precision, and the traumatic story of Agnès's past is woven through her present with a light-handed delicacy.
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