Book Review: Cleaner of Chartres

Cleaner of ChartresThere are some books where the author’s message and their view of the world has to be teased out as you read. Sometimes you can get to the end and still not be sure you’ve understood what the author is trying to convince you about or persuade you to believe.

Then there are others where the message is so evident it virtually hits you on the forehead  every few pages.

It’s to the latter category that Salley Vickers‘ novel The Cleaner of Chartres belongs. Not that this book can be described as hard-hitting even if I did develop multiple bruises while reading it. It neither deals with ‘difficult’ subject matter nor features characters whose dialogue is replete with profanities or obscenities.

Far from it.

This is a book which I would describe as ‘cosy’. The kind I might read if I was prostrate on my bed recovering from the ‘flu and lacking in sufficient energy to wrestle with anything requiring more than half my brain power.

I know I’ve made it sound like this novel is dire.

It isn’t.

It just isn’t very good.

It’s ok, nothing more, nothing less.

The novel features a mysterious woman called Agnès Morel. When the novel opens she is working as a cleaner inthe magificent cathedral of Chartres. Who she is and where she came from, no-one really knows. Taciturn by nature but with a natural intelligence she builds a new life while never revealing the secret of her past and a dreadful deed that marred her younger years.

Agnes is a vulnerable woman not only because she has a dark secret but because she finds it difficult to refuse people who ask her to take on new work often at very low wages. The worst culprit is Madame Beck, a gossipy spiteful widow who employs Agnes as a cleaner only to unjustly accuse her of stealing one of her beloved china dolls. The aftermath threatens to breach the wall of secrecy that Agnes has built around herself.

According to the Guardian, Vicker’s novel “explores the darker side of human nature with the lightest touch.” Light in touch for sure, but the dark side of nature is really more like a light shade of grey. There isn’t enough about the disturbing nature of Agnes’s earlier life to counter-act the feelgood element that comes from the heavy emphasis on the positive effect that this woman has on the people around her. Agnes is a touchstone  against which other inhabitants of this town begin to measure their own attitudes and behaviours. Under her influence they start to change so by the end they all regard this woman with affection. Innate goodness and true friendship will conquer all seems to be Vickers’s message.

I kept waiting for the trajectory of the novel to change unexpectedly. But although there is a point at which everything threatens to come falling down on top of Agnes, the effect is transitory. Since I didn’t particularly take to this character or find her believable, I didn’t particularly care what happened to her.

This is a book that will have its fans. I am just not one of them.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 24, 2013, in Book Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I have read other Salley Vickers novels and there were some I liked more than others. Great review – not sure I want to read it at the moment.

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    • i’ve not read her before so had nothing to compare this with Ali. All I knew was that her earlier book Miss Garnet’s Angel was hugely popular

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      • I read that and liked it but preferred some of her others, like Mr Golightley’s holiday – and Instances of the number three – there was another I disliked and another I liked – but can’t remember what they were called.

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  2. I loved this review! Books like this can be so frustrating, as you keep reading hoping for something better. You captured that feeling well while acknowledging the book wasn’t total rubbish and would appeal to some readers.

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    • Thanks for those lovely words Laura. I find reviews can be so hit and miss.Ones you spend a long time thinking about and rewriting get little response and then you do one in half the time and suddenly the comments come pinging. Very odd

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      • Yes, it’s funny that way. And sometimes I find I get more comments when I really slam a book, than I do for one I loved. But then again, writing a review for a book I hated is kind of fun so I sheepishly admit that to hoping it generates discussion!

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