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Sunday September 8, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Sunday September 8, 2013 MYT 8:04:42 AM
By MARTIN SPICE
An engrossing and thought-provoking book set around a grand cathedral. No, it’s not a literary Da Vinci’s Code, it’s better!
THE cathedral of Chartres is generally acknowledged as being one of France’s, if not Europe’s, finest. A number of features contribute to this claim but the most compelling is probably its stained glass windows. They are mostly medieval and mostly intact, which means they have survived for some 800 years.
So famous and valued are the windows, in fact, that before the Germans invaded France in 1939 during World War II, the glass was removed (we are talking thousands of individual pieces here) and carried to safety. They were then replaced and all the leading renewed. So the setting of Salley Vicker’s latest novel is one of great historical and artistic significance as well as one with extensive spiritual overtones.
The spiritual dimensions go beyond the obvious one that a cathedral lies at the heart of the book and at the centre of the life of Agnes Morel, its heroine. Chartres cathedral was a centre of pilgrimage for hundreds of years, claiming to contain the birthing shroud of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom it is dedicated. Perhaps more in tune with our times and with Dan Brown enthusiasts, the cathedral is also home to a great labyrinth on the floor of its nave whose meaning has been picked over extensively but seems certain to involve complex geometric and numerological codes.
Salley Vickers is not much concerned with these, at least on the surface, although their “meaning” briefly teases Agnes as she gets on her knees and scrubs at the stones. If there is a connection, it is that Agnes is also in search of the centre of her own labyrinth, the mystery of her origins about which she knows very little. Found, along with a single earring, in a basket by a kind farmer, she is taken to a convent where she is brought up as a foundling by the nuns. At the age of 15 she is raped and gives birth to a son, Gabriel, who is promptly taken away from her to be adopted. After this trauma, Agnes experiences some sort of a breakdown which may or may not have had violent consequences. For much of the book we do not know.
After treatment Agnes is allowed to leave psychiatric care and ends up sleeping in one of the doorways of Chartres cathedral and shortly afterwards her life as a cleaner begins. In this ubiquitous role, Agnes enters the life of the city and we are introduced to a fine supporting cast of characters: a Welsh professor whose wife has left him to his sculptural studies; an artist for whom Agnes sits; an English dog-walker; and the town gossip, the embittered and frightful Madame Beck. Alongside these are two of the clergy, the elderly and increasingly deranged Abbe Bernard and the kindly, thoughtful Abbe Paul who proves ultimately Agnes’s greatest ally when she is attacked by Madame Beck. And in the cathedral itself, is Alain Fleury, a restorer who is taking the layers of dirt off the stones just as Agnes washes away the grime from the floors of her clients. The metaphor of cleaning, exposing and restoring is not an accidental one – Salley Vickers was for a time, after all, a practising psychoanalyst.
The Cleaner Of Chartres is first and foremost a gripping and compulsive read. Agnes’s story is involving in its own right and the spiritual and psychological dimensions I have hinted at above add a layer of complexity which is perhaps initially unexpected. Talking about her mother, Vickers commented that, “It was left to my younger brother to fulfil our mother’s academic aspirations, while I found another métier for the gifts she had unwittingly bestowed: the fine-tuned radar, a fascination with secrets, a deep understanding of how the past never really goes away” and certainly The Cleaner Of Chartres exhibits all of these traits.
In Agnes, Morel Vickers has created a memorable heroine, one who, despite all the questions about the darknesses of her past, touches the lives of those with whom she comes into contact and brightens them. Vickers rightly exposes small town gossip and self-righteousness for the thinly disguised evil that it actually is and its presence adds an edge of uncomfortableness to the book.
If I have one reservation, it is that Vickers’ plotting is almost too neat at times, for she more than most of us must know that real life is rarely tidy. That said, The Cleaner Of Chartres remains one of the most engrossing and thought-provoking books I have read for some time. Twelve years ago, Vickers’ Miss Garnett’s Angel became a massive word-of-mouth success; there is no doubt in my mind that The Cleaner Of Chartres is destined for the same level of appreciation and acclaim.
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