Magazine article The Spectator

Getting the Knives Out

Magazine article The Spectator

Getting the Knives Out

Article excerpt

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers Penguin, £16.99, pp.297, ISBN 9780670922123

It's odd that this book should be about a cleaner, because it exactly conjures up the emotions I felt when I worked as a cleaning lady many years ago. Contemplating the grease-encrusted kitchen floor I was about to scrub, I'd cry aloud: 'How long must I perform this thankless, gruelling task? Why me?'

These agonised expressions were wordlessly repeated as I waded through this dismal novel.

The main character is a girl called Agnes, and I spent many hours trying to work out whether she had no personality at all or too many personalities. She is wonderfully adept at managing restaurants, looking after babies and engaging in profound philosophical dialogue; yet she remains disA few grisly murders might have perked things up a bit, but tragically the lives of the characters are spared turbingly dim. She is illiterate, but works as an accomplished secretary. Occasionally, she tries to attack people with knives; yet we are supposed to like her. Every time I thought I had got her measure, she would metamorphose into an entirely different Agnes, duller than the last. She appears to be popular with everyone, but that's not much of a recommendation, given the sorry state of the novel's dreary characters. Not one single person springs to life.

To make matters worse, the story jumps confusingly in time and place. One minute Agnes is cleaning Chartres cathedral, whilst flirting with an antiques restorer; the next, she's in a psychiatric hospital, attempting a Charlotte Corday impersonation, dripping knife in hand. …

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