Book Review – The Cleaner of Chartres
Title – The Cleaner of Chartres
Genre – Literary Fiction
Author – Salley Vickers
Published – 2012
* * *
I enjoyed this novel. It kept me turning the pages. The central character, Agnes Morel, caught my sympathy to the extent that I wanted to know how her story developed. The plot was intriguing, with a twist that took me by surprise.
The novel depicts human nature convincingly. There are good characters and bad characters, weak characters and strong characters, and they play out their roles in a satisfying manner. Skilful writing shows different facets of their personalities, and gives insights into how they became the people they are. Salley Vickers has a humane view of people, and this glows through the way she depicts her cast.
So, why only 6/10?
The problem I have with this book is that it constantly feels like an excellent novel trying to escape from the strait-jacket of one that is run-of-the-mill. It has flaws that reduced my pleasure as a reader.
For example, language. The very first line of the novel is, “The old town of Chartres, around which the modern town unaesthetically sprawls…”. Unaesthetically? Really? I nearly closed the book then and there.
Then the characters. I realised quite soon that I was struggling to remember who was who, so, when I had finished the novel, I counted how many significant characters there were. There were at least eighteen. When reading, I had to make a special effort to identify the characters as they appeared.
Having so many characters brings other problems too, one of which is the characters’ voices. Professor Jones’ voice caught something of the Welsh lilt, but I felt that the voices of most of the characters were inauthentic, or just plain dull.
The central character, Agnes Morel, is attractive. She’s also believable; but only just. Her wardrobe is a strange mix of shabby and glamorous, just as her intellect is a mixture of limited and unusually insightful. More than once she is referred to as a savant, which is fair enough. Her character requires a willing suspension of disbelief, and the writing is strong enough to maintain that.
The novel is written in a mix of contemporary and flash-back, and uses the third person universal point of view. The action takes place in four places, Chartres, Evreux, Le Mans and Rouen. Every chapter is headed with the location so we know where and when the action of the chapter is set. I occasionally found this confusing.
In summary, a good novel, one I could imagine reading again, one which had me thinking about what it is to be human, but a novel with irritating flaws. Definitely worth reading.