Book Review

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger


On the banks of the River Seine in 1899, a young woman takes her final breath before plunging into the icy water. Although she does not know it, her decision will set in motion an astonishing chain of events. It will lead to 1950s Norway, where a grieving toymaker is on the cusp of a transformative invention, all the way to present-day Canada where a journalist, battling a terrible disease, risks everything for one last chance to live.

Taking inspiration from a remarkable true story, Coming Up for Air is a bold, richly imagined novel about the transcendent power of storytelling and the immeasurable impact of every human life.

I adored Sarah Leipciger’s debut novel, The Mountain Can Wait, and was delighted to hear that she had another novel coming out.  I absolutely loved Coming Up for Air, and I’m fairly sure that it will make an appearance on my books of the year list come December.

Coming Up for Air begins with a poignant and chilling prologue as we meet a young woman who removes her shoes and coat, takes a deep breath, and throws herself into the Seine.  Leipciger captures the initial moment of calm, followed by the body’s instinctive reaction to save itself.  It’s a dark and brooding opening, but one that instantly pulled me into the story.  Who is this woman, what drove her to commit suicide in this way?  It’s a thought-provoking scene, enhanced by the woman being referred to only as “L’Inconnue” – the unknown woman. 

After that opening, the novel goes on to share three seemingly disparate narratives.  There is a connection between them, but it’s not an obvious one and it only becomes clear towards the end of the novel.  While I enjoyed all three tales presented here, I did like the tale of L’Inconnue the most as we learn about the events leading up to her suicide.  Her life is one of early personal tragedy as her mother dies giving birth to her, leaving her to be raised by an aunt who makes it very clear that she blames L’Inconnue for her mother’s death.  The aunt considers her a burden and makes no secret of this.  Sent off to Paris to be a lady’s companion, L’Inconnue gets her first taste of freedom and soon comes to experience a happier life away from her overbearing aunt.  Of course, this makes the opening scene more surprising, and I was gripped as I read on, wanting to know what drove her to it.  I also liked Leipciger’s evocation of nineteenth century Paris – I felt that she successfully captured both the essence of the city and the time at which it’s set beautifully, bringing it to life for the reader.

The second narrative features Pieter, a toymaker in Norway in the 1950s.  His story is one of wanting to push the boundaries of his craft, to innovate both in terms of what is produced, but also in the materials used in the manufacturing process.  His tale, too, is one of tragedy as one simple decision – made with the best of intentions – leads to a disaster for him and his family.  It’s heart-breaking, and yet interesting to see where it takes him after the event.  The third tale is that of Anouk, who is born in Canada in the late 1970s and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.  Anouk’s life is one of constant consideration for living with the condition, and the reader sees the daily routines she goes through in order to make it more manageable, the risks she and her family must be constantly on guard for as well as her frequent hospital stays.  Anouk is such a determined character, and I think that it’s impossible not to admire her.  She pushes herself despite the risks, considerate of but not allowing herself to be limited by her condition.

River is life and death both.

Water is used as a motif throughout the novel – the Seine for L’Inconnue, and the North Sea and the rivers and lakes of Canada for Pieter and Anouk respectively.  Both Pieter and Anouk love to swim and it’s a key part of their lives for these characters. For me, water symbolises change and transience, and all three characters go on a journey as the novel progresses, with ups and downs, happiness and sorrow experienced by each.  Water takes on more significance for L’Inconnue and Pieter, however, and shows that while it’s essential, it is also inherently dangerous.

There is an element of truth running throughout the novel, although you’d be forgiven for not picking up on it.  The author’s note at the end of the novel explains the inspiration she took from “L’Inconnue de la Seine” as well as a story of a toymaker in 1950’s Norway and a particular invention that you’ll be aware of.  The rest, as Leipciger readily admits, is invention.  Leipciger has woven a fascinating tale of three lives that are linked in surprising ways around this thread of truth, and I found this to be a beautifully told and intriguing novel.  Highly recommended. 

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