Publication Date: 19th March 2020
When I first saw glimpses of this book on Twitter I was immediately drawn to it even though I knew very little about it. What I did know was that this book was constructed around the fact that resuscitation dolls used in first aid courses everywhere were in fact based on the death mask of an unknown woman who’s body was found in the River Seine in Paris in the late 1800’s. Very little was known about this woman other than estimates of her age and she was known as L’Inconnue de la Seine (The Unknown Woman Of The Seine) but what was so intriguing about her was the serene look on her face, even in death. She had no apparent marks on her body and nobody quite knew how she ended up in the Seine. Was it suicide and who was she?
Now I find this story so fascinating so to have a work of fiction crafted around this premise was hugely exciting to me. I also historically have really enjoyed fiction that has roots based firmly in fact. I am always in awe of an authors skill in taking a fact and weaving it into something amazing, taking a scrap of a story which most people were not aware of and running with it.
In Coming Up For Air, Sarah Leipciger gives us the 3 handed narrative of 3 characters who exist decades apart yet are intrinsically linked. The book opens with the death of the L’Inconnue in the River Seine in the late 1800’s (not a spoiler obvs!), we then jet forward to Pieter, a toymaker from Norway in the 1950’s. We then sprint further forward in time to Canada to meet Anouk, a journalist who is battling Cystic Fibrosis and is in need of a lung transplant in order to save her life.
Once we have been initially introduced to these three characters in their separate time periods we then revisit them where they move back and forth through time in their own narrative. For example in the case of L’Inconnue we journey back a few years to find out how she came to be dead in the river. We never learn her name, she remains anonymous to the reader but she is so alive in her narrative. She is employed as a ladies maid to a wealthy old widow and strikes up a relationship with one of the ladies young female aquaintances.
We learn about Pieter and the loss of one of his children and how this tragedy permeated through his life and was the impetus for one of his best inventions.
Via Anouk’s story we learn of the terrible debilitating illness that is CF and how this impacts her as a child, as a teenager and the far reaching effects of the disease on her parents marriage.
In my opinion, all three threads of narrative could be amazing stand alone novels in their own right. Each character is so fully rounded and compelling and each of their stories needs to be told and heard. However, the skill Sarah Leipciger has in delicately linking these narratives together through not only the obvious tangible links but the more ethereal themes of wild swimming, breath, air, lungs, life, death, drowning is just a joy to behold.
Each of the narratives is presented to the reader in different forms. The story of L’Inconnue is told in the first person which allows us into this young girls head without really knowing much about her actual identity. Pieter’s story is put across to the reader as almost a love letter to his child, recounting various stories from his own childhood and from his life with his child. Anouk’s story is told in the third person which I think works very well given that her parents play a huge part in the narrative and their fractured relationship is almost as absorbing as the struggles Anouk is living through.
This book was such a compelling read in myriad ways. Sarah Leipciger’s writing is captivating and sharp and all historical and medical elements were very well researched and portrayed.
Coming Up For For Air is one of those books which stays with you long after you’ve finished it. I have a feeling it will make my top books of the year.
Thank you so much to the publisher as always for my review copy.
See you all soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx