This is my review of The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers.
Although it shares with the bestselling “Miss Garnett’s Angel” the topics of church restoration and the ghostly background presence of a “Gabriel”, this novel has a sufficiently distinct storyline. A little exotic in her colourful skirts, Agnes works as a cleaner at Chartres Cathedral, whether as a means of forgetting the past or in atonement for some past deed is unclear until the end.
Switching between past and present, the novel reveals the sadness of her previous life after being found abandoned in his orchard on St. Agnes Eve by a kindly farmer who thinks she will be better off with the nuns than in a children’s home. Labelled “retarded” owing to her inability to read, she is struck by a chain of misfortunes as a teenager, with inadequate support from both the blinkered nuns and a bungling medical service. The ambiguity as to her guilt or innocence in all this and the tension as to how matters will be resolved in the present make this a page-turner, together with the wrily humorous yet also often poignant portrayal of a variety of characters, the beautiful descriptions of Chartres Cathedral which make you either want to visit it or wish you had paid more attention when you did, and the intriguing details on the history and mythology surrounding it – even if these are too often embedded in a rather clunky fashion into the monologues of the handsome hunk Alain waiting in his conservationist’s scaffolding to carry off the appealing Agnes.
There are a few too many coincidences in the plot, which occasionally teeters on the brink of Mills and Boonland. The greatest flaw for me is the tendency to digress into too much detail at every opportunity: when a character remembers finding her husband kissing the maid, you have to be told exactly which wines she had in mind on her unexpected visit to the kitchen, but some will find this adds charm to the novel. Knowing that the author has worked as a psychotherapist, I sometimes felt that she has been unable to resist the temptation to weave in too much of the welter of experience and analysis stemming from her work. Despite this, the story is in the main saved from mawkishness by her wit and insight. I think I found it more moving than the better known “Miss Garnett’s Angel” and recommend it, although I suspect it will appeal mainly to female readers.