The Cleaner of Chartres / Salley Vickers
New York: Plum, 2014, c2012.
And the third in my trio of books set in France, this is a more modern and mysterious story than the others.
Agnes Morel is a stranger to Chartres, despite having lived there for nearly 20 years. She is a quiet, reclusive woman, trying to keep on living despite a dark secret in her past. Because of this secret, she doesn't make friends lightly -- she really only has one or two.
Agnes works as a cleaner, both for the great Chartres Cathedral and for local residents. This occupation gets her into some hot water, as one jealous housefrau accuses her of theft and then stirs up gossip about her past, becoming obsessed with uncovering Agnes' secret. This situation drives most of the action of the story, although most of the actual "action" takes place in the past, and here we are finally seeing the truth and its repercussions.
Chartres is a beautiful part of this book; the town's side-by-side modernity and very ancient history creates a wonderful setting. Scenes of Agnes scrubbing the 11th century labyrinth on her knees, following the path as she goes, are a rich symbol of her daily existence as a penitent, trying to atone for her previous life. There are quite a number of mentions of the labyrinth in this novel -- how could there not be, when it is such a part of Chartres? (and a large part of the inspiration for this novel). Agnes' lonely work in an empty, quiet cathedral is beautiful and evocative, even when suddenly broken by the appearance of Alain, a stone mason working far above on repairs. It was because of my own interest in the labyrinth that I picked up this book in the first place, hoping to see some mention of it; it is discussed and evoked in a wonderful manner, wholly within the context of the story.
Gentle priests, troubled women, painters, artists, restaurateurs...there are many intriguing characters living in the old town of Chartres, interacting with Agnes as she moves in her daily round, brushing against the walls she's set up to protect herself, drawing her into community. In this way I see the structure of the whole book as a labyrinth; Agnes is following the same path as others, though they are all in different places.
But even without a fascination for the labyrinth like mine, readers can enjoy a well-developed character in Agnes, and the strong presence of France itself as the setting for her story. It's a slow-moving book that depends on characters being exposed bit by bit, through indirect means -- it's perfect for those who enjoy stories based on character, told in language that is also full of images, reflecting the fragmented nature of Agnes' past life. I really enjoyed this book, as it slowed me down to follow the twists of the sentences and the story. But it also held lots of human behaviour that made this deceptively quiet; there are many incidents despite the slower pace. It's worth getting to know Agnes, and especially Chartres.
Joanne Harris' Chocolat captures the same feeling of a strange woman in a small French town who mysteriously causes things to happen, and people to change.
An Uncertain Age by Ulrica Hume also centres around Chartes and delves into its mysterious esoteric past. It features characters who are on a philosophical search for meaning and who experience things that can't always be explained.