THE SUNKEN CATHEDRAL by Kate Walbert: A Review

This 2015 novel’s colorful cover displayed at the Alvin Library attracted me and “forced” me to check it out. I knew the Impressionistic cover depicted the sunken cathedral of the title, and it “looked like” music. Although I had never heard of Debussy’s score, “The Sunken Cathedral” (described as the composer’s ” musical version of Impressionism”), I was moved by just looking at the cover.

All this from just the cover and title! According to the blurbs on the back, Walbert’s story follows a group of characters, “as they negotiate one of Manhatten’s swiftly changing neighborhoods.”  The New York Times calls it, “a stunningly beautiful, profoundly wise novel,” and describes Walbert as “a wickedly smart, gorgeous writer.”  It opens with a strange prelude, written in italics. Flood waters swirl and drown all things, engulfing the city.  We do not know what city it is until later.

We meet in the first chapter, two elderly friends, Matie and Simone. Both had immigrated from Europe after surviving WWII. They are finishing dinner together and hurrying out so as not to be late for their art lesson. Sid Morris, once an artist, now a washed-up art instructor, who has students meet in his shabby apartment, is their teacher. The conversation between the six students, each with his or her backstory, explained in long,  narrative “footnotes,” more “side-stories” than anything else, round out the characters of each student.  The interplay between the instructor and the students laps over into the students’ private lives as well.

Marie, much younger than the two friends, appears soon. She is their landlady, who has issues of her own, in which they quickly become involved. This interesting device allows the author to create a sub-plot which keeps the reader involved in the plot and beginning to care for each character.

Cathedral,  the author’s peek into twenty-first-century life, is as well written as it is conceived and designed. It is a splendid novel in every aspect and one you certainly will enjoy as much as did I.