A quiet novel with emotional depth

The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers

cleaner of chartresThe seventh novel by Salley Vickers, The Cleaner of Chartres is the story of orphan foundling Agnès Morel, and the people who come into her life.

Before introducing us to Agnès, the novel begins by telling us about the great cathedral, how it burned and was rebuilt by an army of unknown craftsmen …

Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’,  Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was give to these fanciful notions.

Right from the start, we are entranced by the mystery of Agnès with her topaz eyes.  She was found in a basket by a farmer, who left her with the nuns at Rouen to bring up. When she was a teenager, things happened, and she ended up in psychiatric care under the kind Dr Deman.  It will take most of the book for Agnès’ backstory to be teased out gently, only then reaching a climax when the past threatens to eclipse the present.

It is in the present, twenty years later, that we learn about Agnès’ nurturing nature as she cleans and babysits for the residents of Chartres, taking on the job of cleaning the cathedral itself when the old cleaner became too infirm.  It was Abbé Paul that had found her when she arrived in the city homeless those years ago, helping her to find lodgings and work.

She is a quiet woman, having a few good friends and she is trusted by those who use her services, yet her exotic appearance does attract the attention of the town busybody Madame Beck.  Meanwhile Agnès attracts some rather more welcome attention in Alain, a craftsman working on a restoration project – there is a mutual attraction there, which doesn’t get past Madame Beck’s eagle eyes.  Beck decides to employ Agnès, always looking for a way to disparage her, and when one of her antique dolls goes missing – she starts her campaign against Agnès in earnest.

As the author said herself when I saw her speak the other evening Agnès is very much a catalyst for action in those she meets, bringing out their latent qualities. From being painter Robert’s muse, or a shoulder to lean on for the increasingly bewildered Father Bernard, to becoming the focus of the bigoted Madame Beck’s attentions.  She inspires love though too: in Dr Deman, in a kind of reverse transference when a patient falls for their doctor; unrequited love in Professor Jones whom she works for; and fatherly love in Jean, the farmer who found her whom she looks after in his declining years.

There are moments of humour too, one notable segment concerns two of the nuns who brought her up, (one nice, one nasty) when they come on a visit to Chartres.

Sister Laurence had taken the opportunity to escape to the north aisle of the nave. When Mother Véronique tracked her down, Sister Laurence declared that she had decided that her favourite window was Noah and the flood. She particularly liked, she said, the pink elephants and striped pigs.
‘Boars,’ corrected Mother Véronique.
‘Oh yes, of course, “boars”,’ repeated Sister Laurence with seeming meekness but with enough of a treasonous glint in her voice for Mother Véronique to embark on a lengthy account of the life of St Lubin.

This is sensitive storytelling at its best with a cracking character-driven plot that gradually increases in tension as Agnès’ story is revealed.  We are all smitten by her, but also by the cathedral itself. Who wouldn’t want to visit it after reading this wonderful novel and maybe find themselves as Agnès does in its labyrinth. (10/10)

To find out more and see other views about this book, why not take a look at Salley’s own website, or Jane’s review at Fleur Fisher in her World.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers, Penguin paperback.

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An evening with Salley Vickers

Salley Vickers, the best-selling author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, and her latest novel The Cleaner of Chartres is an absolutely fascinating person. We were lucky enough to have her visit Abingdon yesterday evening where she talked about her books in interview with Mark Thornton from Mostly Books

Salley Vickers 001

Salley, (named we found out from the WB Yeats poem Down by the Salley Gardens, salley being Irish for willow), had an unconventional upbringing being the child of strict atheists who were members of the British Communist party. She won a scholarship to St Paul’s school – and came top in RE!  She has done many things before becoming a novelist, most notably being a Jungian psychoanalyst which flavours much of her writing.

Mark started off by asking about her relationship with bookshops as an author. Salley said she felt it was a privilege to have her books in shops, and especially independent bookshops – who helped her on her way.  She couldn’t get her first novel Miss Garnet’s Angel into any chains, but indie bookshops did take it, and helped to spread how good it was by word of mouth.  She said she loves readers’ responses to her novels, and how books can bring people together – book groups are a sort of democracy at work – well sometimes.

Salley told an anecdote of how books can occasionally physically change lives: the real café in Venice that featured in Miss G was going to close, but suddenly people started coming to it after reading the book, and it was able to stay open. She was delighted to hear from the owner.

… which led on nicely to talk about places and character. Salley told us how she had been sniffy about going to Venice the first time, but as she walked through from the station towards San Marco, she felt ‘all my adolescent prejudices melting away.‘  She found the church that inspired her by getting lost.  It took getting lost on another visit to find it again.

labychartresfloorAlthough from a strict atheist family they did visit cathedrals, and Salley had visited Chartres when younger.  Later, she took her own family there, telling her sons that the labyrinth was the path to heaven.  But it was on another visit, when she snuck into the cathedral early one morning before it was officially open, and saw a cleaner working on the labyrinth that The Cleaner of Chartres was inspired.

For Salley, place has to ‘coincide with something happening in the present’ which leads to the dual timelines present in all her novels. Mark admitted that he was more than a little smitten with Agnès in The Cleaner of Chartres, and terribly worried when past collided with the present.  Salley explained how some people may say that Agnès was a little passive, but that she didn’t see her that way. Instead, she sees her as a catalyst, who brings out the latent qualities in other people – often beneficial, but not always.

Salley also told us that she always has one character in her novels through whom she expresses her own views and opinions – the Monsignor in Miss G, and Dr Demas in Chartres for instance – both characters that are interesting and, from the nods of acknowledgement, were well-liked in the room.

Mark and Salley then talked about her being a psychoanalyst and how this influences her writing.  Salley had wanted to be one, Jungian, from a fairly young age after reading a book by Jung about dreams and consciousness.  She uses this directly, by writing fast in her nightclothes when she gets up – preserving the vestigial traces of her unconscious dream state.  She also confessed ‘I don’t plot‘, like a psychoanalyst going with the flow in a session, she lets the characters guide the plot – however, she said ‘I like plot, and I like story.’ which is just as well, as her novels are known for a strong storyline.

She was fascinating company, obviously enjoying the interview style of the evening, and signed books for all with a violet pen.

I enjoyed The Cleaner of Chartres very much – review to follow.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Miss Garnet’s Angel, The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers, paperbacks.

Medieval Iceland – a place of cod wars even then…

On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, trans Alda Sigmundsdottir

At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

His intensity frightened her. It also enraptured her.
“Promise that you will never betray me, Ragna,” said Thorkell one night at the beginning of the month of Goa, in early spring, when they met in the small back room. For a full week they had not been alone together, as he had been away on business with John Craxton. Before she knew it, he had brandished a knife and cut his palm, his bloodied hand reaching out for hers. Hesitantly she extended her right hand, and he used the knife again. Her blood swelled from the wound, and she merged her blood with his, promising him loyalty unto death in this ancient manner. A few drops fell on the floor between them.
“Now you are mine in the pagan manner,” he said and smiled, the priest, with fire in his eyes that made her burn, inside and out.

So, that’s the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions – the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time.  Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn’t submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King.  These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides – her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest.  All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won’t-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout.

If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you’ll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).  (8/10)

It is the first book I’ve read from Amazon Crossing – Amazon.com’s latest publishing venture of books in translation from around the world.

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My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine for review. To explore further on Amazon.co.uk, please click below:
On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, pub Amazon Crossing, Mar 2012, paperback 207pp.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Australian Literature Month – Just about made it!

This January has been Australian Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, and the interweb has been alive with Aussie Lit.

Before I give my thoughts on the book I read for the month, I’d like to recall my very first experience of Australian books…

It was the early 1970s I think, and my Dad acquired a little volume by a chap called Afferbeck Lauder.  It was called Let’s Stalk Strine and was about Australian language and culture, but written phonetically in an Aussie accent, and thus was very funny indeed. I remember reading it rather perplexedly, then as realisation dawned falling about with laughter.  Afferbeck Lauder (Alphabetical Order) was, of course, a pen-name – for a chap from the Sydney Morning Herald who wrote a Strine column, and half a dozen or so Strine books in the mid 1960s.  Sadly they’re all out of print, and none available for under a tenner anywhere, else I’d have been able to see if it’s as funny as I remember, (unless you still have yours Dad?).  Enough of detours though, and on to the book I read…

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

This book was in my TBR for so long, I got rid of it. It was the original hardback too (left), although I don’t think it was a first edition.  Then a few years later, I had a yen to read it and bought another paperback copy (right, dislike that cover though), and put it in the TBR again, where it has stayed until I was given the nudge to read it, spurred on by Lizzy.  We had a vague plan to do a shared post, but in the end were too busy to get it together!  So here are my thoughts…

My first reaction to the book was it’s so dense!  There is so much packed into O&L’s 500+ pages, that it reads like a book that is far longer. That’s not a bad thing though in a really good novel, and this is one.  The density is in the dazzling detail which has a Dickensian quality to it, making it a book to be savoured and not rushed.  I read it more slowly than I usually do taking nearly the full month, reading several short chapters, of which it has 111,  most mornings.

The story was not at all what I expected.  The playing cards on the front of the original cover would have you think that O&L are an Australian Bonnie & Clyde conning their way through the bush, however, the later cover with its church and praying hands is ultimately much closer to the heart of the story.  I’m not going to outline the plot in detail as Lizzy’s post captures its essence admirably.

Needless to say it’s epic in scope. We alternate between Oscar and Lucinda’s stories in the first half of the book.  Both are parentless as young adults, Oscar through estrangement and Lucinda’s mother died leaving her a small fortune. Despite having developed a flair for winning on the horse, Oscar decides to emigrate to Australia on a whim, and must overcome his phobia of crossing water for the long voyage. Lucinda meanwhile buys a glassworks and, while trying to integrate into Sydney society, gets addicted to playing cards for money.

So it’s chapter 46 before they are on the same page of the book, and several chapters later before they say a word to each other on board the ocean liner taking Oscar to Oz.

There were two doors. She chose the right-hand one. Ahead of her was a red-headed clergyman sitting on a plush red settee. It was the second-class promenade. She felt herself ‘nabbed’, ‘caught in the act’. She thought it undignified to turn back. She held up her head and straightened her shoulders. She came forward. She walked directly towards him. She introduced herself to him, and when he said his name, she did not hold it.
‘I am in the habit’, she said, ‘of making a confession.’
‘Quite,’ he said.
‘Perhaps this is not a practice you approve of.’
‘No, no,’ he said, ‘of course not.’
‘I wonder then, she blurted, ‘if you might not oblige me at a time convenient to you.’ And then, not quite knowing what she had done, and certainly not why, she fled to those regions of the ship where Oscar dare not follow.

There’s an instant attraction, but neither are capable of acting upon it. Hidebound by society rules, theirs is a relationship that will be two steps forward, and mostly two steps back, as misunderstandings and the inability to speak their minds always get in the way, until Oscar gets his chance, but what will he do?

This is a slow-burning book that, until the last fifty or so pages, plots a leisurely course through the lives of its protagonists. I can imagine getting very frustrated with both of them if I had read it faster – I still wanted to knock their heads together.  Having been on their own since they were teenagers, with few friends of their own age, Oscar and Lucinda are innocents in the ways of romance, and it was this hope that they would actually realise their love that kept me mesmerised from start to finish.

My first experience of Peter Carey was a good one – I hope to have many more. (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey