The Sunken Cathedral

By Kate Walbert

Scribner. 208 pp. $25 nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by

Katherine Bailey

nolead ends In 1910, Debussy based one of his preludes on an ancient Breton myth depicting a cathedral in the sea that sometimes rose up to great heights and sometimes disappeared in the white-capped water.

Kate Walbert, author of A Short History of Women, has aptly chosen The Sunken Cathedral for the title of her latest accomplished offering. Like the cathedral, her compelling characters achieve highs of self-knowledge and certainty about their place in the world - and also sink into depths of depression, regret, and worry about the future. Deftly, Walbert employs water as a metaphor flowing through her novel.

Equally skillful is her exploration of each character's inner life. Simone and Marie, widows in their 80s, survived World War II in France and meet years later as young mothers tending their offspring on a Brooklyn playground. Now they are healthy, engaged with life, and even adventurous. Yet they are filled with yearnings and anxieties.

Their sense of adventure prompts them to take a painting class from Sid Morris, a devotee of Cézanne who instructs a handful of students in a grimy tenement studio. Simone and Marie are oddly attracted to Sid despite his boorish manners.

Also in her 80s is Helen, another student in the class. A former art historian, Helen is painting a series titled "Life Under Water," one of which shows St. Patrick's Cathedral, and another of which depicts a homeless man - both subjects deep in an ocean.

Somewhat tenuously linked to the painting-class students is 43-year-old Elizabeth, perhaps the novel's most compelling character. She is Marie's upstairs tenant. Walbert portrays her as a woman baffled by her teenage son, Ben, by her husband, and by her role in the world. She struggles with "a prevailing uncertainty" about life. She longs for the self-confidence exuded by the other parents at Ben's school. She asks her therapist, "Does everyone else have a composed life? Is everyone else sure of how things should be?"

At the novel's core is the vague fear of catastrophe - one brought about by water - with which every character lives. Strange storms descend upon New York, and its residents worry the entire city will soon be underwater.

Walbert's work is a win-win. It is both wise and beautifully written.