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Review: Kate Walbert's 'The Sunken Cathedral' a shimmering story of love, loss

Published Jun. 17, 2015

Women become invisible after a certain age, the bitter joke goes, the only variation being which decade marks our disappearance. But Kate Walbert not only sees vanishing women — a pair of widows in their 80s, the suddenly uncertain mother of a teenage son, a middle-aged art historian with visions of a drowning city — but paints their lives in indelibly rich and vibrant colors in her stunning new novel, The Sunken Cathedral.

Set mostly in present-day Manhattan, The Sunken Cathedral focuses on Marie and Simone, who each as young girls fled France after narrowly escaping death during World War II and wed American husbands. The women are longtime friends who shared their lives as married couples and raised their children together, first in Brooklyn and then in Chelsea. Now, with their husbands gone, they lean on each other to negotiate their old age.

As the novel begins, Simone, always the adventurous one, talks Marie into signing up with her for a painting class at the School for Inspired Arts, which at first glance looks not so inspiring, taught in a "decrepit-looking building" by Sid Morris, who is as old as they are and beginning to smudge around the edges a bit himself.

But the class and Sid, who calls them "my beauties," engage them. It's there they meet Helen, an art historian haunted by a long-ago visit to Hiroshima, who is making a series of paintings she calls "Life Underwater," of New York's famous buildings submerged.

Simone wants to finish a sketch of the Brooklyn Bridge started by her late husband, Henry; Marie works on a fanciful painting that echoes the chalk drawings her son, Jules, used to make on the steps of their brownstone when he was a boy.

Jules lives in California now, and Marie's husband, Abe, has been dead for years. But Marie still lives in that brownstone, watching Chelsea transform around her: "The neighborhood's suddenly too loud, sirens and helicopters and the frenzied revelers packed on the sidewalks, in the bars, the restaurants. The electronic pulse everywhere. ... Someone has tilted the globe and everything's rushing in, or down, wrenched from the hand."

In an upstairs apartment in the brownstone is another woman, Elizabeth. She lives with her suddenly surly son, Ben, and her husband, Pete, whom she loves but who lately is given to fits of distraction Elizabeth and Ben call "hamster trances."

When Ben's school gives its students an assignment, a family project called "Who We Are," Elizabeth finds herself getting far more involved in answering that question than she should be.

All of these women, and other people in the novel as well, are dealing with change and loss in some way, while living in a city that surrounds them with beauty and surging life. Their stories spread out from Marie's like concentric ripples on water.

Walbert skillfully uses footnotes to tell some of those stories. These are not the miniature theses of a David Foster Wallace footnote, but undercurrents to the narrative, deeply personal stories, some a few sentences, some several pages, like Marie's memory of what happened to her family in France, and to her afterward.

Walbert conjures that past as she embodies the present, in shimmeringly lovely prose embedded with jewellike details. Marie's story becomes, in essence, a love story, although the heartbreaking end of one: She is the sole survivor of a happy marriage. Walbert captures perfectly Marie's precise sense of loss:

"This was what has plagued her most about Abe's death — not so much the death of Abe, but the death of all Abe knew: his books, his lifetime of asking, his thoughts, his memories, all this and everything else, their yellow kitchen with each object in its place, carefully mannered, intricate, ornate though not rich, more historical or, rather, well loved ... it was the archaeology of the things, he would say, the history. ..."

The book's title comes from a piano prelude of the same name composed by Claude Debussy that was inspired by the mythical city of Ys. According to legend, the ancient city on the coast of Brittany sank tragically beneath the waves; occasionally, when the water is clear, its buildings can still be seen, and the bells of its cathedral heard.

That submerged city is not only a metaphor for New York, its future in a world of rising seas hinted at throughout the novel. The cathedral, uniquely complex and lovely and now hidden from mortal sight except for the rarest of glimpses, stands too for the beloved dead.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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