The Cleaner of Chartres. Sally Vickers. Viking Adult. June 2013. 304 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780670785674.
Agnes Morel is a quiet, gentle soul who arrived at the famous Chartres Cathedral and wound up a steady presence as a cleaner and as an inspiration to many who were daily visitors to the cathedral. There’s Abbe Paul who has lost his faith in God after the death of his parents but who begins to see the face of God again in this young faithful cleaner. No, it’s not her faith in God that is so moving; it’s her constant presence and quiet, gentle support. She seems to know exactly what to say and when to say it – or when to keep silent and just listen or “be” present to the Abbe as he talks and talks and talks.
Then there’s the restorer of the cathedral ceilings and walls, Alain Fleury, who is an artist in his own right in some ways as he describes the careful work he does. He find strength and companionship in Agnes whom he can always see from where he works. And there is the Professor whose home is desperately in need of being put in order and the arrogant woman who hires Agnes looking for scandal in the ugliest way possible.
But just as one is unsure where this is going, the author begins to interweave past scenes from Agnes’s life, a life of abandonment, torture, predatory attack, and the consequent mental collapse she suffers, told in the most eloquent, heart-rending scenes. Then and only as this past story evolves does one realize how amazing it is that Agnes has come out of this hellhole of darkness to become the saint-like human being she is; let no one believe it was an easy journey and there was certainly no known plan that led her to this point. One may only speculate that somehow the hand of God often appears in the goodness of men and women and in spite of the worst one can imagine in other men and women as well.
The Cleaner of Chartres is an amazing, beautiful, harsh, peaceful, gracious story with such a profoundly sensitive yet real depiction. Quite simply astonishing and highly recommended!