Monday, July 20, 2015

"The Sunken Cathedral," by Kate Walbert

Reasons Why I Should like Kate Walbert’s new novel, “The Sunken Cathedral” (Scribner, 2015): 1. I have very much liked her earlier novels, “A Short History of Women” (about which I posted on 6/13/12) and “The Gardens of Kyoto” (my post was on 7/13/13) and her short story collections, which I posted about on 7/24/13 and 7/26/13). 2. It is getting excellent reviews. On the other hand: Reasons Why I Didn’t Particularly Like or Enjoy It: 1. As in Walbert’s other fiction, there is much slipping back and forth in time, which is fine, but here the slipping becomes so constant and sometimes confusing that I found it an irritant. 2. There is no main focus. Having a plethora of characters and plots and wisps of memories is all fine, but I -- rightly or wrongly -- require some kind of focus in my fiction. At times it seems a scrambled mess. 3. The device of including many long -- sometimes more than a page each --footnotes telling back stories, adding facts, etc. is all very experimental and catchy, but distracting and, for me, not effective. 4. The novel is set mainly in Manhattan (something I always enjoy; this is not the problem here) against a background, or rather a pervading presence, both there and nationally and internationally, of a vaguely apocalyptic threat of climate change, rising waters, unusual weather, but this again is rather indistinct and not specific. For all these reasons, I could never settle into the book; I felt tugged around and back and forth. I did have the chance to get somewhat involved in the lives of some of the main characters (two elderly friends, Marie and Simone; their elderly art teacher, Sid; Marie’s tenant, Elizabeth), but even then, the outlines of their lives were unclear in so many ways. I like to think that I am at least somewhat open to experimentation in fiction, but perhaps I am just too old-fashioned in my desire for a somewhat clear plot and well-drawn characters. Going back and forth in time is also fine, but with a few more signposts than are offered here. I realize I am sounding like a grouchy traditionalist, and there may be some truth in that description! None of this negates my admiration for and appreciation of this gifted author, Kate Walbert, and her fine fiction. I am just a bit less taken with this novel, “The Sunken Cathedral,” than with her other fiction.
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