Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

This is a weird review to write. Let's start by saying that I liked this book a lot, then digress a little to why it's a weird review to write. I debated whether or not to start this way, but then again, I often use my reviews to talk about the experience of reading, if it seems relevant and/or interesting. Like my Gone Girl review that's largely about reading the last page near the beginning.

So, why is this a little weird? Well, because it's the first time ever I've gotten an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) from a publisher. I got a very nice tweet from Simon & Schuster Canada, and that led to someone there saying they had a book they thought I might like, and could they send it to me?

Now, I've never gone after ARCs - it seemed like a lot of hassle for books I'd get to eventually anyway, and there are lots of previously published books screaming at me to be read. However, it was damned flattering to be asked, and if someone comes to me and is an honest-to-goodness real publisher, I'm in! A week later, an exciting package containing TWO books appeared in my mailbox (I haven't gotten to the second one yet, but I will), and I settled down to read Kate Walbert's The Sunken Cathedral.

Every book I sit down with I hope I like. While a good snarky review cleanses the palate every once in a while, I would really prefer to read awesome books. And so it was with a great sense of relief that I discovered that the first ARC I'd ever gotten contained a book that I quite enjoyed.

And yet, I'm quite sure it's not for everyone.

Let's talk about what it's not before going on to what it is, and what themes I responded to most strongly. It's not big on plot. If you're looking for a strong throughline of stuff happening, this is not going to be for you. If you have little patience for meandering or meditative prose, I'm guessing ou may want to take a pass.

If, on the other hand, you like character-based books, where exactly what happens is not as important as how and to whom it happens, I would recommend this book. It's set in New York City, among four women, (or five - the back of the book talks about four, but there's another one who I thought had about as much of the book devoted to her as the other four), none of whom are young, and two of whom are quite old indeed.

Stories jump back and forth in time, trying to situate who these women are and how they got where they are, and I enjoyed both the prose and the interweaving of disconnected lives. There are ways in which I suspect it does not, in the final assessment, hang together perfectly as a work of art, but at the time, I was so strongly moved by it that that niggling feeling didn't really matter.

One of the best things about The Sunken Cathedral is that it's one of those books that welcomes readers bringing their own experiences to it. I suspect other people would find different parts resonating than I did. What was strongest for me were the themes of life continuing with absences, and the misinterpretation of our lives by others. The two older women are widows. A school principal has a daughter who doesn't talk to her. Most have children to whom they are no longer essential.

Although this book is perhaps melancholy, it isn't pessimistic. These women feel out how to live their lives, sometimes well, sometimes poorly, in the midst of people who care about how they are doing or don't. Connections are made. Connections fracture. People you had counted on being there forever are suddenly gone.

Yet life doesn't end when absences occur. They hurt and they alter, but it isn't over. There are still romances, still hope, still searches and stories. None of this is done in a linear fashion. As I said, there isn't a driving narrative. It's an impressionistic exploration, and it's not perfect. But it is provocative, and I was moved by it. I likely would never have read this book under other circumstances, but I'm glad that I did. It's taken me over a week to sit down to write this review and the book still lingers.

(An ARC of this book was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review)

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