Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger – Book Review

Title: Coming Up for Air (review copy)

Author: Sarah Leipciger

Genre/Themes: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Thought Provoking, Lyrical, Multiple Timelines Woven Together, L’Inconnue de la Seine, Resuscitation Annie

Blurb from Goodreads

Three extraordinary lives intertwine across oceans and centuries.

On the banks of the River Seine in 1899, a heartbroken 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, drowning in her own lungs, risks everything for one last chance to live.

Moving effortlessly across time and space and taking inspiration from an incredible true story, Coming Up for Air is a bold, richly imagined novel about love, loss, and the immeasurable impact of every human life.

My Review

Simply stunning.

This book takes three disparate stories all linked by a theme of water and drowning and somehow creates this beautifully moving narrative that I completely lost myself in as I was reading.

The book takes poetic licence with the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine who is an unidentified young woman whose body was pulled out of the River Seine in Paris around the 1880s. Her death mask became popular among artists and writers, and ultimately her face was used as the model for the face of Resusci Anne (Resuscitation Annie) which is the manikin used for CPR training.

The author Leipciger reimagines what this nameless woman’s life could have been like in the time period before her death and this reimagined narrative anchors the book.

And intermingled with this reimagining are the stories of a toymaker in the mid 20th century specialising in plastics who experiences his own devastating loss, and the lifelong struggles of a woman from the 1980s through to recent years who is ‘drowning in her own body’ due to cystic fibrosis.

This is a quiet book. One that brings about lots of gentle reflection. One that made me as a reader think about love, mortality, the feminine and the masculine. I thought about loss and despair and about what it is we truly leave behind when we do die. It uses the imagery of water to reflect the dichotomy of live and death. How water can be so freeing; how it cradles our bodies and allows movement that perhaps we are not otherwise capable of. How it can be used as a means to break free from the constraints of life. But it also explores how this same water can slowly smother us. How it drags us down, leaves us struggling for breath.

I was utterly transfixed by this novel.

The themes of the novel could be thought of as macabre but instead I found a sense of life continuing because of how the three distinct narratives shared a commonality of the search for ultimate freedom. Be it freedom from societal pressures, freedom from a life dictated by others, freedom from physical pain, freedom from emotional pain and somehow I found it to be both immensely thought provoking and a great comfort.

The writing is utterly glorious. The pacing perfection. The characterisations compelling.

A book I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reflective reads.

I was invited to read an e-copy of this book by the publisher, Transworld Publishers, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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