“What could be worse – she half-thought – than to have loved and been given no chance to make it known?”
(From the inner cover): There is something very special about Agnes Morel. Twenty years ago, she appeared in the cloisters of the ancient cathedral of Notre-Dame, in the medieval town of Chartres, France. To the townspeople, it seems she has always been there – a harmless presence, touching their lives in subtle ways. But no one knows anything of her past.
(Agnes actually has a grave over the e but it’s too hard to type in this blogging site so can you please take it as read?)
This is a slow, contemplative story of everyday life in Chartres of distinctly non-everyday people. Vickers’ way of telling the story, back and forth between Agnes’ adult life and her childhood with the nuns, is somewhat disjointed and irritating – I would actually have preferred a smoother chronological telling. It’s been a long time since I read Miss Garnet’s Angel (which I do remember enjoying otherwise I wouldn’t have accepted this review copy), but I don’t remember it being so slow. Actually, that’s unfair: I was impatient yesterday reading this but actually now I think I’ve been too harsh – the slow pace of writing suits the book very well.
Agnes is a very complicated character – you want to support her because she is such a mistreated innocent, no parents, child taken from her. But she doesn’t make liking her very easy, either to readers or to other characters in the book. She only really opens up to the Abbe Paul and to the restorer Alain, another exile from society. The Abbe Paul is lovely and sympathetic, not totally but close to flawless character. Dr Deman is an odd fish – you feel like he really does want to help Agnes but then his actions have been harmful to her for a long time. Everyone needs a slightly rebellious nun ally, and Sister Laurence is perfect for Agnes. While there is no doubt that Agnes is the main character here, Vickers devotes considerable time to the secondary characters and the readers are well-rewarded for it.
Plot is quite light in this novel – it’s really a character study, but there’s just enough to keep us ticking along. The build-up of tension and climax through the spreading of ugly stories from Agnes’ past about the town by Madame Beck, the embittered old woman with the ability to see bad in everyone. Agnes seems to be beset by terrible events and rumours on all sides. Nonetheless it’s deftly done and I’ve no plot-related complaints.
This is one of those reviews that I’ve come to write and it’s full of niggles which is unfair on a peaceful, sedate, enjoyable novel.
Copy kindly provided by the publisher, quite a while ago, in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Viking, 298 pages (hardback)
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