In 2009, Kate Walbert published “A Short History of Women,” a complex novel that swirls around several generations of one family to explore what it meant and means to be female in the modern age. “The Sunken Cathedral” may be a shorter history of women, but it’s no less insightful about the mysterious ways our lives play out.
Like so many elements of this rich new novel, its title points backward and forward. The people of Brittany have long told of a church submerged underwater, and now as the climate warms and the oceans rise, we may have the opportunity to see that ancient myth reenacted in the 21st century. There’s nothing overtly polemical about Walbert’s book — no Earth Day bumper stickers or treacly polar-bear drownings — but it begins and ends with an apocalyptic vision of water flooding New York City: “The trees toppled and bobbed, knocking in a surging logjam the limestone foundations of the once tenement art galleries, the red brick churches and garages and too numerous to count glassy condo towers — each a flimsy envelope leaking carbon, heat, cooled air in summer.”
The main story of “The Sunken Cathedral” takes place in the deceptively stable months before that ruinous inundation. Two widows in their 80s, Marie and Simone, have screwed up their courage to take a painting class in Chelsea. Marie suspects she and her friend look like “ridiculous old women in boiled wool coats and solid pumps,” but it’s nice to get out of the house, and Simone immediately starts flirting with their instructor, “as old as they are, a bit stooped but otherwise compact, fit, even, so that calisthenics are likely involved.” He’s a tad pompous in his beret, but Walbert never reduces any of her characters to satiric props, and here in his dusty studio, we see and hear the basic foundations of modern aesthetics. One of the students, an art historian, explains that Cezanne “wanted to paint only the impressions of what he saw: light, space, color.” Creeping around their easels, the instructor reminds his students, “Painting is not copying. It is realizing one’s sensations.”
That Impressionistic principle informs this book, too, in a way that may remind readers of Virginia Woolf. Although Walbert never allows her narrative to dissolve into stream of consciousness, she manipulates time and space as though they were as viscous as oils. And she allows the central plot to drip off the edges of this canvas. That effect is structurally emphasized by footnotes that read like little prose poems of ineffable grace. A mention of Marie’s late husband, for instance, leads us to a note about how they met and courted decades earlier. Another footnote describes how she survived as a child alone and on the run in France during World War II. Some of these notes are long, taking up more than two pages, and some contain incidents as moving and significant as anything in the main text of the novel, a strategy that implicitly challenges what’s central and what’s tangential in our lives.
And we’re constantly being led away from the story of Marie and Simone to follow other stories, other characters. A fellow member of their art class recalls hearing the Breton myth of the cathedral from her father, who used it to tell her about Debussy and the piano prelude he was inspired to write — “the musical version of Impressionism.”
Another significant branch of the novel follows an anxious mother who rents a floor of Marie’s brownstone. An assignment at her child’s school — “What’s Your Story?” — aggravates her increasing restlessness among the super-fit parents. And that story shifts as subtly as twilight into yet another one, about the school principal and her secretary. Walbert’s narrative method is a gentle lesson in empathy, a reminder that it’s only artifice and egotism that give us the misimpression that we’re the central protagonist of the life we’re composing.
If there’s a learning curve to reading this quiet novel, it’s natural and entirely worth the effort. As the end approaches, the story seems to grow more capacious, drawing Marie’s life in Chelsea to a close even while expanding to include more of the characters around her — “pure coincidence, the kind of thing that often happens in New York City, though no one can explain why.” Walbert is doing something fascinating with the illusion of permanence in this ever-fluid world.Her New Yorkers complain that “the City is no longer the City,” but they’ve been bemoaning that practically since the old island flowered for Dutch sailors’ eyes — “a fresh, green breast of the new world,” as Fitzgerald put it. In the final pages, the weather grows more chaotic and alarms sound. “Time will pass as time will pass,” Walbert writes. “The City still stands.” It’s as sad and lovely as any feeling Debussy might evoke.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
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On June 16 at 7 p.m., Kate Walbert will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THE SUNKEN CATHEDRAL
By Kate Walbert
Scribner. 212 pp. $25