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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Review: 'The Cleaner of Chartres'


The Cleaner of Chartres
By Sally Vickers
Contemporary fiction
June 2013
Viking
ISBN: 978-0670785674

Some novels are less than what they appear, others are more so. Some can be read as entertainment only, while some can be read that way but have other things to say. Salley Vickers writes novels that are unassuming yet have wise observations about people and how they like to judge others. The Cleaner of Chartres is such a novel.

Agnes Morel is one of those quiet women who appear as if they are going through life trying to be undetected. She arrived one day in Chartres, no one remembers exactly when, and has made a meager living for herself cleaning and occasionally watching children.

One priest tries to turn Agnes into his confessor, not of crimes, but of his crisis of faith. Two catty old women who employ Agnes use her in their game of oneupsmanship. A lonely professor turns his life around when Agnes begins to organize his messy office. A psychiatrist worries whether he helped Agnes or made her life worse. And a man involved in a cleaning project within the cathedral finds her fascinating.

Perhaps because she is quiet and makes no demands of her own, others either want her to listen to them or assign all sorts of activities to her. She is often regarded by others are a character not unlike that of Chauncey Gardner in Being There, in which others mistake simplicity for being profound. But in the case of this novel, there is no satire involved.

There is, however, past tragedy and that is used against Agnes when it becomes known. And that's when the narrative becomes really rather interesting. Vickers is good at pointing out what the foibles of each character mean in terms of what kind a character each is. She also is good at slipping in some asides that showcase what's behind what some people do and what's behind their thinking.

In this exchange. Abbe Paul is speaking first while Agnes responds:

"...But since no one knows what it quite was there's no reason why you wouldn't be the one to uncover the mystery." 
"Maybe it is better left uncovered." 
The Abbe Paul looked at Agnes rather as Alain had, with respect. "How sensible. People are desperate to probe mysteries which for the most part are best left unprobed. It is the modern curse: this demented drive to explain every blessed thing. Not everything can be explained. Nor should be, I think." 
"Some things should be, though." She was thinking of the riddle of her own birth. 
"To be sure. I often wonder if happiness isn't knowing what should and what should not be explained." 
"But how can we tell which is which?" 
"Hmmm," said the Abbe Paul. "That, I suppose, is wisdom."

This exchange encapsulates what I like about Vickers's writing -- my initial reaction is to question what's wrong with trying to explain every blessed, and cursed, thing. At first, Vickers's plot seems to suggest that this dashing about trying to explain things, especially when not equipped with all the necessary information, can lead to trouble and hurt people.

But then something else happens, just when it looks like the entire plot is going to collapse upon itself as the smaller-minded characters ascend. As more characters find out what actually happened in the past and what recently happened, things don't just straighten themselves out. Situations actually improve for several characters.

The results are plausible but, depending on one's outlook about other human beings, either likely or barely possible. How one responds to fiction is largely a matter of what one brings to it, and responses could be viewed as a Rorschach Test of sorts. Reading a novel by Vickers, who is a Jungian psychotherapist, it's possible to take a step back from reading and reacting to see what one's own reaction might mean.

Or whether it's just an entertainment.

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