The Sunken Cathedral is Kate Walbert’s homage to Claude Debussy’s piano prelude of the same name. In turn, Debussy’s piano prelude was inspired by folk tales of a sunken city off the coast of Brittany. Walbert’s novel, like Debussy’s prelude, is impressionistic in nature. It begins with images of New York City under water after storms caused by global warming.
The novel moves immediately to a few months earlier, when we meet several different characters living in New York. Marie and Simone are two elderly French women who decide to take a course in painting. Marie is the principal character of the novel. When she was a child, her family members were victims of the Holocaust and she was in hiding.
Elizabeth is the mother of a middle school boy. She becomes obsessed with the Who We Are stories the school assigns the families to write. In this section I think Walbert is gently skewering the upper-class parents who are so wrapped up in their children’s school activities. But Elizabeth is unable to do the assignment, seeming to lack a sense of self.
The structure of this novel is unusual, as it presents us with little shards of each characters’s story, frequently interrupted by footnotes. Sometimes the information in the footnote is more important to our understanding than the main text. It took me a while to get interested in this novel, and at times I was irritated by this technique. I would just be getting involved in what was going on when a footnote would appear, sometimes in the middle of a passage, distracting me from the action.
Still, the novel is beautifully written. At times I wondered where it was going even though it was obvious where it would end up. I’m not certain, though, that I understand the purpose of the novel, except maybe to depict the lives of several people before the flood.