Literary Impressionism

Book Review of “The Sunken Cathedral” by Kate Walbert.

152a0-the-sunken-cathedral-9781476799322_lgAccording to the publisher’s website, this novel “follows a cast of characters as they negotiate one of Manhattan’s swiftly changing neighborhoods, extreme weather, and the unease of twenty-first-century life.” The main characters are Marie and Simone, friends of many decades, survivors of World War II, now widowed and living in the neighborhood of Chelsea in New York. The publishers also said, “Walbert paints portraits of marriage, of friendship, and of love in its many facets, always limning the inner life, the place of deepest yearning and anxiety.”

Choosing the word ‘limning’ couldn’t have been a more perfect one for this novel. A quick look up defines it as to “depict or describe in painting or words” or ” suffuse or highlight (something) with a bright color or light.” That is exactly what Walbert does – she suffuses the story with color and light, and paints this story with her words. Walbert does this with lyrical prose, which results in her combining art and music into her narrative.

It should therefore be no surprise that this book is highly connected to the impressionist movements in art, music and literature. The most obvious connection is the School for Impressionist Art, where Marie and Simone decide to take a painting course. Their instructor, Sid Morris, gives them models to work from, but only as suggestions. He doesn’t insist they paint what is in front of them. Instead, he wants them to put their feelings on the canvas, much like the impressionist artists did in the late 19th century.

Walbert then moves to the musical connection with several references to the radio playing something by Debussy, an impressionist composer. In fact, the title of this book is the same as his piano prelude “La Cathédrale Engloutie,” which, of course, is French for “The Sunken Cathedral.” Not being familiar with that work, I wanted to hear it for myself. This led me to the Breton legend of the City of Ys, Debussy’s inspiration for this piece. I found many versions of this legend, all of which include its watery downfall, which is the element most relevant to this novel. Walbert turns that into a catastrophic storm that’s about to hit New York. (By the way, this isn’t Hurricane Sandy, but rather an even worse, fictional storm, taking place in the very near future.)

All of this is a complex backdrop for Walbert’s impressions of this confluence of characters, whose lives both intersect and diverge, their pasts, their present and even their futures. Usually people break down novels between those that are plot driven and those that are character driven. On first glance, one might put this into the latter category. However, there is a third type of novel, and that is a language driven story. By that, I mean a book whose prose is so striking and absorbing, that even if you aren’t sure about all the characters, or where the story is leading, you just don’t care because the prose itself has you captivated. This is one of those books, and at the risk of sounding overly effusive, this luscious novel is simply exquisite to read, and a pure delight to experience. Obviously, this gets a full five out of five stars from me, and comes overwhelmingly recommended.


“The Sunken Cathedral” by Kate Walbert published by Scribner (a division of Simon & Schuster), release date June 9, 2015, is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), from the website, iTunes, the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me this book for my upcoming review on BookBrowse via NetGalley.

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