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book review

Handout

  • Title: Coming Up for Air
  • Author: Sarah Leipciger
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: House of Anansi
  • Pages: 320

Without spoiling too much, I can say there are some grains of fact in Sarah Leipciger’s latest novel, Coming Up for Air. Among these historical truths is the story of a once-famous visage, an unknown woman whose death mask served as muse for painters and writers alike, among them Rilke, Nabokov and Louis Aragon. The woman’s expression invites speculation about her life, because her face doesn’t look like a dead person’s. Neither rigid nor slack, it still has that vitality to it, like she has just closed her eyes a moment for her own thoughts, while smiling to herself. That smile, enigmatic like the Mona Lisa’s (said Camus, among others). I’ll leave it there, for those who do read the novel.

With her two books thus far, Leipciger has shown a talent for finding the attention-grabbing scene in the middle of things. In her first novel, 2015’s The Mountain Can Wait, it was a hit-and-run. In the opening chapter of Coming Up for Air, a woman narrates her own death: suicide by drowning, after jumping from one of Paris’s bridges into the polluted waters of the River Seine.

If I had one criticism of Leipciger’s debut, it’s how long it took to build narrative tension on that initial dash of violence, even though its opening chapters also included a bear attack and a missing mother, possibly murdered. The book’s lush descriptions of its B.C. settings, both interior and coast, somewhat made up for this lack of narrative propulsion.

Coming Up for Air sidesteps this problem by presenting three distinct narratives. In the first, a young woman arrives in Paris in the waning years of the 19th century to become a lady’s companion. There, she discovers her passion as well as a fundamental truth about her birth. The second, set in the 1950s, concerns a Norwegian toy-maker addressing his young son, pet-named Little Bear. We intuit early on that something has gone wrong, possibly with this man’s marriage. The third focuses on a character named Anouk as a girl in the 1980s, growing up on the Ottawa River just outside Pembroke, Ont., then as an adult in present-day Toronto. Anouk has cystic fibrosis, a condition that leaves her struggling for breath as her lungs fill with fluid. Nearing her 40th birthday, she receives the prognosis that she will need a lung transplant to survive.

On their own, each story would likely not be enough to sustain a novel, but intertwined they maintain a mystery about how they connect – and their plots do connect, although they are much more closely woven by setting, theme and style. Water bodies feature heavily – the Seine and Ottawa rivers, Lake Ontario, and the North Sea – as does swimming, that immersion with its emphasis on breath. The flipside is swimming’s dangers: the cold that saps a swimmer’s energy, the prospect of silently drowning.

There’s drowning in its figurative sense, too. Consider how easily this could be read as metaphor: “Contrary to what most people believed, a drowning person didn’t make much of a splash. A drowning person was there one moment, and then she was not. Drowning was private. Unremarkable. Drowning was quiet.”

These narratives are most closely linked by the repetition of images or just words. Blue veins, rivers under the skin. Fossils, the imprints left by dead things. The underside of a wrist, described as a white belly. A man hawks cashews at a Parisian restaurant; later, baby mice are like cashews, the way they curl. What’s going on here? Leipciger leaves the merest hints, barely there, that each of the three protagonists might be a kind of author to another’s story. (This would be one way to explain away an error like misplacing Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.) Each narrative features a storyteller of a kind. One woman is even aware of the instant when fiction diverges from “real life”: “This was the moment I. Became separate from the story.”

There’s an idea to be probed there, especially as the novel itself is fiction layered around historical fact. Maybe this wasn’t the author’s intention, although it’s what intrigued me most about the book and I wish it had been a bit further developed.

If this book were a river, it would be one of those where the channels plait. They might briefly separate around a sandy bar, only to join again. Such braids trace the underlying currents invisible during full flood – but what are those currents in this book, beyond those made by the lyrical repetition? It’s ultimately not a line traced through history, as one might expect with this narrative set-up, but an idea expressed three ways. Pieter, the toy-maker, puts that idea this way: “River is life and death both.” Coming Up for Air’s is an understated approach – likely too understated for some tastes – although it does leave the reader with that paradox to ponder.

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