Saturday 29 June 2013


It makes me happy when I am reading my chosen 'book of the month' to realise very quickly that it's a book I really WANT to recommend.  That is what happened with my June choice for the Artful Readers Club - "The Cleaner of Chartres".  I'll say at the start that this is an unusual book.

After last month's review of "The Italian Chapel", it seems strange that this is another one related to a religious building.  Many years ago I visited Chartres Cathedral and was overwhelmed by the wonderful colours shining through the huge rose window onto the flagstones below.  "The Cleaner of Chartres" made me wish I could go there again.

The story is not actually about the cathedral, it is the setting for the characters and events, which are centred around Agnes and her life past and present.  There seem to be so many books at the moment with this past/present scenario, but with this book it works well.  It was a little slow at the beginning but very quickly the story clicks in and my interest was engaged for every page that followed.  For the first 3 or 4 chapters I had to sort out whether I was in the past or present, but then I had the sense to realise that each time the chapter heading said 'Chartres' the story was back to the present.

The writing was very readable with a beautiful use of language, and sly subtle humour.  There was not a superfluous, wasted word in the whole book.  The balance of this quiet humour with sadness, true-to-life characters, history, and a gentle romance element was perfect.

A recurring element in the story is the labyrinth that is set into the floor of the cathedral.  The concept of the labyrinth and the need to safely find a way in and out of the maze echoed the idea of finding one's way through Agnes's present and past to discover what lay at the heart of her problems.

One of the main characters tells Agnes the ancient Greek story of the Cretan labyrinth with a monster at the centre, a creature that feasts on a tribute of young boys and girls. Theseus determines to kill the beast, and is given a thread by the king's daughter so that he can find his way out.  

Agnes is told that a tablet was once inlaid in the cathedral floor at the centre of the labyrinth which held an image of the Minotaur, and no-one knows why a pagan image should have been included in the fabric of the building. 

This small section of an image of Theseus and the Minotaur - a creature with a bull's head and tail and a man's body - is from a wine jar made and decorated 5 centuries BC.  I cropped the picture carefully with an oval shape.  This is, after all, a family blog.

Away from this strand of the story the book explores human personality and relationships, good and bad people.  I liked the characters I was meant to like, despised the baddies, and got very annoyed with the people who just did not think of the consequences of what they were doing or saying.

I read it quickly and was sorry when I reached the end.  I felt as though I had lost 'friends'.


When it comes to deciding on artwork inspired by my personal book of the month, I find myself choosing to do just that, follow my inspiration.  If one subject that jumps into my mind and stays there even though I try to find another theme, then I go with the one that really is the 'inspiration'.

Since childhood I have read and loved the ancient Greek stories and myths, and treasured my books of legends, so the subject of the Minotaur captured my imagination.  Here is my version of the bull's head, and I leave you to imagine the rest of his body.

The background was a failed print from some work I was doing a couple of months ago.  It came to mind because I remembered the imprint of the coils of narrow ribbon I had used to make a design, and felt these represented Ariadne's gift of the thread.  That left a corner for the bull, just enough room for his head.

Every time I drew him, he looked like a friendly cow, and I had to make several attempts before I could make him even vaguely frightening.  I think he's evil enough now to make me frightened of meeting him in the dark.  Now you may say that a bull is not red, and is a grass eater with no fangs or sharp teeth.  That's because you've seen a bull from time to time, but I know you haven't seen a Minotaur, and my Minotaur is definitely red, with scary yellow eyes.  And how could he eat the youths and maidens if he had bovine teeth - would he suck them to death?

The bull was coloured with Inktense pencils, trying to get a rough textured appearance.  The sharp edges around the image were added with a filter in Photoshop to give a rather uncomfortable feel.  I'm quite pleased with it, and it helps to remind me of "The Cleaner of Chartres" which I know I shall read again.

You will find images of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth on Google.  And if you don't know the ancient story of Theseus and the Minotaur, check that out on Google too.  Theseus doesn't come out of the story as a very reliable lover, and all does not end happily. Should make a good television play.  

'Theseus killing the Minotaur' is a section of an illustration of a Greek Vase in "Myths and Legends", New Burlington Books, 1992


  1. Love the story, love the Minotaur, love the art. When I first saw that cropped photo from a wine bottle, before I read your words, it reminded me of one I saw in a chapter of erotic art. Loved what you said that this was a family friendly blog.

  2. I love, love, love Greek myths and legends and was actually introduced to them via an Enid Blyton book believe it or not which I still have to this day :)

    Really enjoyed your review Jez and it sounds like a book I'd be interested in too so am going to add this one to my list.

    I love your art work Jez and do you know what - I never thought about the teeth aspect!

  3. Good review, Jez...intriguing...and I love the setting. May have to take a look at this one in the book store. Your art is perfect for the book...he does look fierce- I think it's his teeth and yellow eyes that do it!! :)

  4. Fantastic review Jez :D ....and your right about the scary Minotaur, it would have starved licking people to death lol. Sounds like a wonderful book, so glad you enjoyed it so much :D XXX

  5. Your bull certainly looks fierce! I love ancient Greek mythology, I visited Knossos on Crete a few years ago, I know Historians don't like the way its been restored, but as a lay person I found it facinating, Great stuff Jez :)

  6. Sounds like a great book with an intriguing plot and colorful characters. Your artwork is wonderful...great balance and composition; your rendition of the Minotaur is fabulous.

  7. Salley Vickers is one of my favourite writers so thank you so much for alerting me to this one that I have not read! Your review is so good I shall definitely go out and look for this one! I love your exploration of the labyrinth too. Your artwork is lovely. I now feel I must visit Chartres! Julie Ann xx

  8. I love any book with labyrinths in it, and in a cathedral? Yum! I fell in love with by Jorge Luis Borges, with the poor Minotaur, with the riddles... I might have to read this one.

    And your art is so vivid. He looks so angry, and after been trapped in such way, who wouldn't be?

  9. I too have long been fascinated by labyrinths, and from that aspect alone I think I would enjoy this book, even before reading your review which makes it sound even better. I love your minotaur, he does look fierce, but still kind of cute :) Have been thinking about you a lot since reading your sad news yesterday xx

  10. Super review. Like you I have always loved the Greek myths and your minotaur is wonderful. Must add this book to my wish list.
    Jen x

  11. I love all those Greek myths & legends as well I adored all those films with stop animation of Jason & the Argonauts etc So this book of your sounds interesting I love your art work and that Jar image is so typical of the era. Lovely review thanks Dxx

  12. A very interesting review and this sounds like a book I might enjoy. Super Minotaur, he is scary enough for me! I think the background you have used is perfect for the story.

    Janet xx

  13. I want to visit that cathedral one day!
    I really like cows so I would't have been very sad to see one of them. Your bull-head is more than scary to me! ♥


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