For Those Who Enjoy Melancholy Stories

The Sunken Cathedral

By Kate Walbert

How to describe Walbert’s short novel of interlaced lives of people living in New York City under the pall of sad memories and impending doom? Something like being confined to a single room in gloaming caused by an unending rain storm seems about right. This isn’t to say the novel isn’t good, for it is in its own special way; it is to say the novel is not for everybody and certainly not for those who like a soupçon of joy in what they read.

Walbert opens with three elderly women–Helen, Simone, and Marie–seeking to occupy their time and share by participating in a painting class led by the disheveled and not very successful artist Sid Morris. In time, readers meet Elizabeth, a renter in Marie’s brownstone burdened with an incubus from her childhood, and her husband and teenage son. Later, along come the leaders of Progressive K-8, the school Elizabeth’s son attends, and then Jules, son of Marie, and his partner Larry. Periodically, readers also learn about the women’s deceased husbands and their lives together, much of this related in extensive footnotes. Not really ancillary to the stories but integral to understanding the melancholy of the women’s lives, these are an unusual and interesting but not always welcome way to expand upon the backstories of the characters. Death and longing play a large part in the stories, as does the fear of destructive natural forces.

In case you’re wondering, the title refers to the inspiration for Helen’s painting in Sid’s class, Claude Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie piano prelude, an impressionistic piece attempting to evoke the sense of the legend of the mythical city of Ys built off the coast of Brittany by King Gradlon. He built it for his daughter Dahut who ultimately opened the gates to flooding in a besotted fit of possession by the devil himself and destroyed it.

In fact, you might say, Walbert’s novel is much like Debussy’s aural attempt, except Walbert’s is an impressionistic piece in words of lives in a city that will eventually sink into the ocean. It may work for some but certainly not all of us. w/c

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