Cleaner, babysitter and general dogsbody Agnès Morel has been a fixture in the cathedral town of Chartres for twenty years. Surrounded by gossipy old mesdames, priests who doubt their vocation and an absent-minded professor who showed up one day to write a book about the cathedral and never left, she is perfectly content with her quiet life. But her past catches up with her and the whole town is caught in the fallout. Salley Vickers’s novel shifts between present-day Chartres and Agnès’s early life, first in the convent where she is raised after being abandoned as a baby, then in the psychiatric ward to which she is committed after attempting to stab the Mother Superior with a pruning knife. The juxtaposition of the dramatic past with the pleasant, unassuming woman Agnès has grown into raises questions that Vickers tantalises her reader with, but never satisfactorily answers.
Although the book appears to be framed as Agnès’s discovery of her origins – and, true to form, the orphan’s parents are identified in the final few pages – it is really about the damage that clinging onto the past can do. The vicious Madame