The Cleaner of Chartres

TheCleanerDocleDolceClick on the top title to open The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers is a delicately-layered novel. Vickers deftly weaves themes of evil, the Church, morality, and redemption into a tale that revolves around an eccentric woman who cleans the Cathedral and villagers of Chartres in France.

Until she arrives at the ancient cathedral, Agnes never really belonged anywhere. Agnes had started life as a foundling.  She was saved by a kind old farmer who found her in a basket. He felt inadequate to raise a baby girl so he sent her to a convent. 

When the story opens, we meet Agnes as an adult woman.  She has finally settled in Chartres where she lives simply. She has earned her place in the village as a cleaner and occasional babysitter. Agnes’s main occupation is cleaning the cathedral,  a position that makes her fell useful and safe. She still takes small odd jobs in the village as a cleaner or caretaker because she hates to refuse anyone, and she genuinely enjoys helping.

Vickers unfolds the story slowly. She draws us into Agnes’s world and lets us learn that as a young teenager Agnes had a baby. We also learn that having the infant taken from her made her lose her mind. Vickers doles out the details of Agnes’s treatment under a kindly psychiatrist morsel by morsel.

We follow Agnes on the painful journey that brings her to Chartres.

Once in Chartres, Agnes becomes a part of village life and is drawn into the villagers’ lives.

When Agnes is accused of two crimes – one serious and one petty – her past comes to light.

The villagers and the priests face their own frailties and morality in dealing with Agnes’s vulnerabilities.

The Cleaner of Chartres is a brilliant book about banal events that happen every day. Vickers’s gift is the ability to lift a veil that lets us see the magic and evil that move ordinary lives.

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