Kate Walbert’s The Sunken Cathedral is an undulating novel. Its vignettes follow various characters as they grapple with the anxieties of modern life in Manhattan and the fluctuations that climate change thrusts upon them. Perspectives shift, time skips, and readers must bob their eyes to retrieve significant treasures submerged in footnotes.
Though Walbert initially resisted using the device, “they really insisted on themselves,” she says. “Footnotes felt right and felt true, because they somehow do reflect that fractured consciousness, that you are here—‘you’ being the character or whomever—but also a part of you isn’t.”
It’s true of aged French expat Marie, owner of a Chelsea brownstone in “flood zone A!” as her alarmist son chides. On the surface, she seems adrift and vulnerable to others’ directing winds: the son wants the house sold. Simone, a fellow war bride and widow, wants Marie to enroll in a painting class. Sid Morris, the instructor, has other designs.
But still waters run deep, as evinced by footnotes that eventually exceed some chapters in length. One begins: “Sometimes, before, it had felt like they were in a boat, Marie and Simone, Barbara, Donna, Franny, and all the others. More and more friends disappeared. The illness turned Bev Garfield’s face to stone. Ida Pierce lost her mind, first forgetting the word for sugar. Sugar, they had said to her, waving the little while packets. Sugar,” Walbert writes.
The narrative also shifts among Elizabeth, the upstairs tenant who’s raising one son with her husband just as Marie did a decade ago; Dr. Margaret Constantine, interim head of the school Elizabeth’s son attends; and Helen, an art historian and fellow painting student. They all come to be known with similar depth.
“I’m interested in point of view and the extraordinary way in which fiction allows us to inhabit so many different characters,” Walbert says. “Point of view is the writer’s gift. It’s the way in, the portal to that world.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.