The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

Once more I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, so this is a short post with brief thoughts on The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers. I enjoyed it immensely.
This is a beautiful book, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. Agnès was found as a baby in a straw shopping basket, wrapped in a white tablecloth, with just a single turquoise earring in the bottom of the basket that may or may not indicate her parentage. She was brought up by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at Evreux. It tells of how Agnes became the cleaner of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, in central France, north of Paris, and not only of the cathedral but also a cleaner for other residents of the town.

So, there is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres. Moving between the past and the present, the details are slowly revealed. There are many characters, some likeable people including the Abbé Paul, Professor Jones, who teaches Agnes to read, Philippe Nevers, and Alain Fleury, who works on the cathedral restoration and some unlikeable characters such as Madame Beck and Sister (later Mother) Veronique whose interfering ways cause Agnes such a lot of trouble. All are convincing characters with depth.

I liked it all, the slow build up as Agnès’s history unfolds, the interaction of the characters and the description and history of the cathedral also added to my enjoyment of the book.

Stacking the Shelves: 9 April 2016

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Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘˜real’ and ‘˜virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve borrowed three library books this week, books by authors whose books I’ve read in the past and enjoyed:

  • The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers – I borrowed this because I’ve some of Salley Vickers’ books and loved them, in particular Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday and Where Three Roads Meet, so I’m hoping I’ll love this one too.

Blurb:

There is something special about the ancient cathedral of Chartres, with its mismatched spires, astonishing stained glass and strange labyrinth. And there is something special too about Agnès Morel, the mysterious woman who is to be found cleaning it each morning.

No one quite knows where she came from – not the diffident Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping in the north porch; nor lonely Professor Jones, whose chaotic existence she helps to organise; nor Philippe Nevers, whose neurotic sister and newborn child she cares for; nor even the irreverent young restorer, Alain Fleury, who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes, her colourful clothes and elusive manner. And yet everyone she encounters would surely agree that she is subtly transforming their lives, even if they couldn’t quite say how.

But with a chance meeting in the cathedral one day, the spectre of Agnès’ past returns, provoking malicious rumours from the prejudiced Madame Beck and her gossipy companion Madame Picot. As the hearsay grows uglier, Agnès is forced to confront her history, and the mystery of her origins finally unfolds.

Blurb:

Reading Gaol’s most famous prisoner is pitted against a ruthless and fiendishly clever serial killer. ‘Intelligent, amusing and entertaining’ Alexander McCall Smith It is 1897, Dieppe. Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright, novelist, raconteur and ex-convict, has fled the country after his release from Reading Gaol. Tonight he is sharing a drink and the story of his cruel imprisonment with a mysterious stranger. He has endured a harsh regime: the treadmill, solitary confinement, censored letters, no writing materials. Yet even in the midst of such deprivation, Oscar’s astonishing detective powers remain undiminished – and when first a brutal warder and then the prison chaplain are found murdered, who else should the governor turn to for help other than Reading Gaol’s most celebrated inmate?
In this, the latest novel in his acclaimed Oscar Wilde murder mystery series, Gyles Brandreth takes us deep into the dark heart of Wilde’s cruel incarceration.

Blurb:

Charlie Howard ‘“ struggling crime-writer by day, talented thief by night ‘“’¯has gone straight. But holing himself up in a crumbling palazzo in Venice in an attempt to concentrate on his next novel hasn’t got rid of the itch in his fingers. And to make matters worse, a striking Italian beauty has just broken into his apartment and made off with his most prized possession, leaving a puzzling calling card in its place.

It looks as though kicking the habit of a lifetime will be much more of a challenge than Charlie thought.

Sneaking out into Venice’s maze of murky canals, Charlie’s attempts to tame a cat burglar embroil him in a plot that is far bigger and more explosive than he could ever have imagined.

We should treasure our libraries.

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event hosted by MizB where you share ‘teasers’. I’ve adapted it a bit to include more information about the book and longer teasers.

Yesterday I finished reading Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers. I borrowed it from the library simply because I’ve enjoyed other books by Salley Vickers –  in particular Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday.

Where Three Roads Meet is different, but just as good. It’s one of the Canongate Myths series, modern versions of myths told by a number of different authors. I’ve read others in the series – A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, Weight by Jeanette Winterson (the myth of Atlas and Heracles) and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (the myth of Penelope and Odysseus).

It’s the Oedipus myth as told to Sigmund Freud during his last years when he was suffering from cancer of the mouth. Under the influence of morphine he is visited by Tiresias, a blind prophet of Thebes who tells him his version of the Oedipus story. In between telling the story, Freud and Tiresias discuss language and the origins of words. The point where the three roads meet is the place Oedipus and his father had their tragic meeting, setting in motion the sequence of events that led to his downfall and to the fulfilment of the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother.

In Tiresias’s version Freud’s interpretation wasn’t quite right:

Because, if I may say so, here in all the world was the one person you could safely say didn’t have the complex you dreamed up for him. He was Oedipus, plain Oedipus. But not simple. What was complex about him was not that he wanted to sleep with his mother (as she herself said, that impulse is not so uncommon) nor even that he killed a man who had once threatened his life. Tit for tat, some might say. What was so remarkable was that his own safekeeping was usurped by the need to know what he needed not to know. (page 169)

This is a book with multiple layers, not a simple book. Although it’s easy enough to read it straight through, it is complex, with many ideas about life and death, and truth and ambiguity to ponder. Even if you know the story of Oedipus it seems fresh and new in this version. I found the details of the operations Freud had, their effect upon him and the terrible pain he suffered was quite shocking. All in all, a satisfying, entertaining and challenging book.