Agnes Morel is a quiet and unassuming woman who has lived in Chartres for twenty years. She was discovered sleeping on the cathedral porch as a very young woman and took on small, varied jobs around the town until the cathedral cleaner retired and Agnes was offered the position herself. She is conscientious and meticulous, going deliberately about her cleaning job in the cathedral and in the private homes where she works as well. She is very much a common and accepted, if slightly enigmatic, part of the community around the cathedral and she has never harmed or spoken ill of anyone in Chartres. So it is a bit of a surprise when the unhappy and poisonous Madam Beck starts trying to blacken her name, spreading rumors and untruths, even going so far as to use suddenly accessible information about Agnes' heretofore unknown past against the woman. But Agnes' calm presence has won her a number of friends who stand by her.
The novel is told in alternating chapters focused on Agnes' life in Chartres and on her sad and unhappy past. Having been discovered in a basket in the woods and given to nuns, none of whom were particularly maternal, to raise, Agnes missed out on the acceptance and love that she might otherwise have learned. That she was considered too stupid to learn to read and was forced to give up the baby she bore as a young girl herself only added to the tragedy of her early life. All of her past history spools out between present day chapters that show her simple, unadorned, good heart and the ways in which she labors quietly in this community that knows nothing about her past. But the past is never quite forgotten, not in the way it continues to live on in Agnes herself but also more obviously in the way in which one of the nuns from her former life offers a misrepresented piece of her past to the woman who will be least mindful of its power.
All of the secondary characters here, the kindly Abbe Paul, the disorganized Professor Jones, Alain the cathedral restorer, the guilt-ridden psychiatrist Dr. Deman, the maliciously gossipy and mean spirited Mother Veronique, Philippe who, with his sister, was one of many children Agnes used to babysit, the tortured and increasingly senile Abbe Bernard who has lost his faith and fears his dreams of his deceased mother, and the farmer, Jean Dupere, who discovered Agnes in the basket in the wood are fully realized and delicately drawn. The slow growth of their relationships with each other and with Agnes strengthen the very weave of the novel. Each character is vital to the over all story and to a complete understanding of Agnes' character.
The novel itself is very subtle and restrained, character driven rather than reliant on plot although there are small mysteries and revelations that come as surprises. The pace is quite measured, beautifully mirroring the circling of the labyrinth at the heart of the cathedral and the slow deliberateness with which Agnes spends her life. As the narrative winds in on itself, revealing the heart of the story, Vickers draws the readers into a search for the truth and how important that truth is as versus compassion and understanding. There are definitely secrets here that add to the narrative tension and fine-wrought, nuanced threads about the dangers of judging others, about sin and forgiveness, responsibility and resilience, perception and reality. Vickers manages to incorporate history and psychology, and religion and myth into this quiet and strong novel. Her writing, as usual, is lovely and understated and if you've liked her previous books, you'll find yourself settled into and engaged by this one as well.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.