A baby girl is found abandoned in a basket, with no clue as to her mother’s identity except for a single turquoise earring entangled in the wicker. So begins the story of Agnès Morel, the cleaner of the title, who strives to bring to the lives of others the tidiness and order that she has failed to find in her own tragic past. At the centre of the unfolding events is Chartres Cathedral, an awe-inspiring work of art that exerts a strange magnetic pull on those who live and work around it. For Agnès, it’s the place that gave her shelter when she first arrived, homeless and alone, in Chartres. For some it’s a place of work, for others a source of artistic inspiration, for others a safe haven or a symbol of order and propriety. It is also, of course, a concrete manifestation of faith, and one of the themes explored in the novel is how religious belief, just like the cathedral itself, has a different meaning for each one of us and is interpreted very much according to the character and personal experience of every individual. The structures and systems of organised Christianity are not always portrayed in a positive light. In the convent in which Agnès is raised there is kindness but also cruelty. Madame Beck, one of Chartres’ most vile and vindictive inhabitants, threatens to use the rules and regulations of Church doctrine to destroy the life that Agnès has built for herself out of bitterness and resentment. On the flip side is Abbé Paul, who is less concerned with outward sanctimonious appearance and more determined to live a good Christian life by following the philosophy of treating others as you would like to be treated yourself. Agnès certainly has a colourful past, one that is frowned upon by certain elements of Chartres society, but if this novel leaves you with one message it’s that true goodness is found in the heart, not in a nun’s habit or ostentatious displays of supposed virtue.
I absolutely adored “The Cleaner of Chartres”, so much so that I abandoned everything else I was reading and stormed through it in a single afternoon. The book is split into fairly short chapters and most of the way through it alternates between Agnès’ past and present stories (both of which are equally gripping), which moves the novel along at an enjoyably brisk pace. What I loved most, however, was the way in which the author infuses her story with a real sense of spirituality. The characters and their lives may be very definitely earthly, but there is always a slight mysticism in the air. The novel’s ethereal slant isn’t pinned down to any one set of beliefs – Christianity, paganism and straightforward moralism all get a look in – but rather creates a feeling that whichever faith or philosophy by which we choose to live, our actions are somehow part of a greater scheme that we can never fully comprehend. It’s sad in places, but ultimately uplifting: in this case, love for our fellow human beings really does conquer all.