Viking, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
The Cleaner of Chartres, By Salley Vickers
The medieval masterpiece hosts modern stories of faith and love
Saturday 24 November 2012
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.
Books And it is whizzpopping!
MusicThey're running their own restaurants
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lord Sewel quits: Peer 'boasts of having sex with BBC presenter and seeing 13 mistresses'
- 2 Topshop pulls 'ridiculously skinny' mannequins after being shamed by customer on Facebook
- 3 Five-year-old boy forced classmate to simulate oral sex at primary school, claims mother
- 4 Black and ethnic minority people twice as likely to be hit by Tory cuts than white people, report finds
- 5 Polish court orders bank to repay drugged man after he spends £23,400 in lap dance bar
Inside Out: Pixar makes crucial change for Japanese audiences by editing out broccoli
Watch Tom Cruise lip sync to The Weeknd (seriously)
Top Gear cleared by Ofcom over Jeremy Clarkson's use of the word 'pikey'
Game of Thrones season 6: New toy line suggests Jon Snow is not among the dead
Amazon UK launch Prime Music streaming service to rival Spotify and TIDAL
The 9 charts that show the 'left-wing' policies of Jeremy Corbyn the public actually agrees with
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
The last thing Labour needs is a leader like Jeremy Corbyn who people want to vote for
What the Labour party could look like under Jeremy Corbyn
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park