Kate Walbert has always been a keen transmitter of women’s voices, from conforming suburban wives in the 1950s to British suffragettes during World War I. In her most recent novel, The Sunken Cathedral, Walbert tunes in to a complex chorus of female characters in contemporary Manhattan, a city recently altered by climate change, tragedy and new wealth.
Marie and Simone met as war brides on a Brooklyn playground after World War II. Now widowed and in their 80s, they remain engaged and adventurous. At Simone’s urging, they join a painting class at the School of Inspired Arts in a rundown Chelsea tenement taught by Sid Morris, another aging New Yorker buffeted by the city’s changes. Marie’s tenant, Elizabeth, tries to make sense of life in a post-9/11 city, but her anxiety isn’t helped by her son’s school, where the weekly disaster preparedness program is called “What If?” Back in class, Marie’s classmate Helen makes detailed paintings of underwater scenes recalling Hurricane Sandy and other vicious storms that threaten the island.
Walbert’s New York is haunted by strange weather and flood zones, by emergency drills at the public schools, and the destruction of local landmarks to make way for luxury condos. But the city and her citizens are resilient as well. The tapestry of voices weave a rich pattern, and the novel is strengthened by Walbert’s use of footnotes, which allow her characters’ thoughts to move freely from the present to the past, uncovering private or previously unshared memories, especially Marie’s traumatic wartime childhood in France and Elizabeth’s haunted recollections of a cousin’s tragic accident.
The Sunken Cathedral is a reference to a piano sonata by Debussy that itself alludes to the mythical story of a cathedral that rises up from the sea. Like Debussy’s impressionistic music, the novel is poetic, full of lyrical imagery and subtle shifts of tone. Ambitious, elegiac and occasionally even funny, The Sunken Cathedral is an emotionally resonant story of people caught in a time of unease and change—and a striking portrait of the way we live now.
RELATED CONTENT: Read an interview with Kate Walbert about The Sunken Cathedral.