I could not miss the opportunity to read Salley Vickers new book set in the region of Beauce in central France and the well-known town of Chartres with its famous cathedral, its mysterious labyrinth (which has inspired many authors to pen stories) and an intriguing blurb of the redemptive power of love and community in the famous French town.
Agnès is found as a baby wrapped in a basket by a peasant farmer, the only clue to the parentage of the young nursling, a single turquoise earring lying in the bottom of the basket. The farmer, unsure what to do with the infant, but knowing it beyond his capability to take care of a newborn, deposits her at a convent, leaving the nuns to take care of her. Which, in their own way they do, though it does not prevent her from being judged and misunderstood by the pious community, even though it might be inferred that it was they who made her vulnerable to the events that would follow.
“Agnès is the saint to whom young women pray for husbands, and, since Jean Dupère, who had found the baby, presumed the foundling’s mother had none, he named the anonymous woman’s daughter after the saint.”
The story is narrated simultaneously during two different time periods in Agnès’ life, as a young girl during her various stays in mental health institutions and as an adult in the town of Chartres, where she lives an independent life cleaning the still famous Notre-Dame cathedral as well as various other local villagers homes, characters who bring the pages to life with their flaws, foibles and fantasies, whom Vickers just manages not to let fall into becoming cliché.
There is an underlying sadness to the story, as it seems that Agnes attracts bad luck and as a reader, we can’t help wishing for a lucky break or that people around her could just be kinder or more observant of who she is as a person and not to judge people on how they look or what has been said of them. Like Deborah Batterman’s character Charlotte in her excellent short story, Crazy Charlotte, Vicker’s shows the potential destructive power of that evil tongue, community gossip.
“Agnès had no clear idea why she had fled to the crypt, but for her, unlike Father Bernard, it was the very opposite of the haunt of the diabolical. On the contrary, it had always seemed to her a hallowed place. Old and still and unjudging. Unjudging was what she most craved.”
While The Cleaner of Chartres is no comedy, Vickers depiction of a French town/village reminded me a little of Julia Stuart’s delightful book The Matchmaker of Perigord, a fabulous light read that also excels in depicting the essence of local French villagers. Some of the most enjoyable moments in reading are in the simple narration of everyday life, the interactions between two people, in particular where those meetings bring about a small positive change. So many of Agnès’ interactions have the potential for this, the fact that so few of them eventuate, makes them all the sweeter when they do.
Overall, a pleasant read, although I was a little disappointed with the ending, which I felt should have revealed more than it did.
Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.