My aunt told me recently that she loves the way my father, her brother, gives directions. “We have all the same points of reference, most of them no longer standing,” she said. “He might say, ‘Turn left where Howard Johnson’s used to be.’ I know exactly what he means.”
This sense of a remembered world that lives on just beneath the ever-changing surface is at the heart of Kate Walbert’s stunning new novel, “The Sunken Cathedral.” A powerful elegy for a fading New York City and for the planet as a whole, it is also a deeply human story, full of rich and complex characters.
Decades ago, Marie and Simone met as young mothers in Chelsea after surviving World War II in their native France. Now widowed and well into their 70s, they watch as their neighborhood changes rapidly. Marie is at the book’s center, and its most fascinating character. The others all loosely connect to her. Elizabeth is her tenant. Dr. Constantine is the interim head at Progressive K-8, the school that Elizabeth’s son attends. There’s the movie star who has moved into the brownstone next door. Helen, who takes an art class with Simone and Marie. And Sid, their teacher, who describes himself as, “the playboy . . . the raconteur, the Artist of the East Village, when that had meant more than now, before Starbucks, before the glassy tower condos, before everything changed.”
The inevitability of change and the particular anxieties of our time provide the book’s narrative tension. There’s a sense of impending doom, even while the women sit quietly painting on a winter afternoon. Hurricane Sandy has come and gone. Helen creates images of buildings under water. Marie wonders: “Did this have to do with global warming? The rising sea level? A foot before the end of the next decade! Jules told her just last week. ‘And you’re in flood zone A!’ ”
At Progressive K-8, children do emergency exercises called “What Ifs” (“What if an earthquake were to knock out the power grid? What if an outbreak of avian flu occurred during a blizzard?”) In Chelsea, familiar establishments close. A new tourist magnet, the High Line park, hovers overhead, a menacing presence that, along with an attending real estate boom, raises prices so much that many fear they won’t be able to stay. “Anyway, the City is no longer the City,” Sid says after he gets priced out of the studio he’s occupied since the ’60s.
Walbert, whose novel “Our Kind” was a National Book Award finalist, writes with such precision that she’s able to pack 80 years worth of personal and world history — war, climate change, marriage, parenthood, friendship, death, grace, love, petty betrayal, and sudden violence — into a slim volume. She’s also very funny. In one scene, the movie star reveals to his shrink that his mother has a floating rib and that he’s always imagined it hovering in space like the Starship Enterprise. “She was your universe,” the shrink submits.
Throughout the text, Walbert makes generous use of footnotes. Sometimes they unveil a deeper layer of a character’s thoughts than we otherwise get. A thing that cannot easily be said, even to oneself. Marie’s most painful memory is recounted over the course of several long footnotes. Oftentimes, her past is a more powerful force than her present: Mid-conversation, Walbert might wander into Marie’s inner world in the form of a footnote. Then we return to the text, with Marie asking her companion what he or she was saying.
For the most part, the footnotes work beautifully.
Halfway through the book, there’s an aside about an academic prize Elizabeth won years ago in graduate school. The refreshments at the celebratory ceremony were provided not by her own department, but by “the surplus at History, a department better-funded for reasons having to do with the tragedy of Miles Whitbred.”
Several pages later, we learn that Miles was a passionate history student killed when a drunk driver caused his car to slam into a sugar maple tree. A paper Miles was writing about his great uncle was found in his jacket pocket. In a footnote, Walbert provides an excerpt from that paper. The detour within a detour continues on the next page, with another footnote detailing the history of the sugar maple — the number of birds born in it (hundreds), the number of virgins deflowered because of a romantic carving in its bark (one).
I paused a minute over this one. It’s audacious, almost absurd. But it beautifully illustrates the main theme of this masterful novel. The footnotes serve to remind us again and again what history really is: stories. Every person, every thing, has a past. An antique teapot that was given as a wedding gift, a set of battered kitchen chairs purchased on a long-ago honeymoon. The present is full to bursting with it all, even when it seems like there’s nothing there beyond what the eye can see.
The Sunken Cathedral
By Kate Walbert
Scribner, 224 pp., $25J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the novels “Commencement,” “Maine,” and “The Engagements.”