Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipciger

A remarkable true story richly re-imagined

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 toy-maker 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.

Coming Up For Air is Sarah Leipciger’s second novel. It is a beautiful novel, a story of three people living in different countries and in different times. How their stories connect is gradually revealed as the novel progresses. As the author explains at the end of the novel is is a mix of fact and fiction and has its basis in truth. There is grief and loss and despair in each story, but above all, it is about love, and the desire to live.

Each story was compelling and, for once in a book that alternates between the characters, I thought the changes were just at the right moment in each one.

It begins with the unknown young woman in Paris, L’Inconnue, telling the story of her life that led to her suicide. Her death in the Seine is vividly described. As she fell in the cold water, initially she discovered the desire to live, as her body thrashed about not wanting to drown, her lungs fighting for air, for oxygen. It’s poignant and moving, set at the end of the 19th century bringing the city to life, where she lives as a lady’s companion to an old friend of her grandmother’s.

The second story is that of Norwegian, Pieter Akkrehamn, beginning in 1921, when he used to spend his summers with his grandparents on Karmoy Island. He went swimming in the North Sea, diving down several metres, holding his breath for over a minute in the freezing cold water, as the cold reached his chest, squeezing his lungs. His story is revealed, as he grieves for his little son. He is a toymaker, bored with making wooden toys, who turned to soft plastics and began making dolls with soft faces and bendable knees. What he eventually developed was truly remarkable.

The vital importance of being able to breathe comes to the fore in the third story – that of Anouk, a journalist in Canada. Anouk has cystic fibrosis and is on the list for a lung transplant. Her story is one of how she and her parents dealt with her illness, enabling her to combine her love for water and swimming with managing her cystic fibrosis, all the time struggling to breathe.

I think Sarah Leipciger is a great storyteller. It is an inspiring book, beautifully written, which emphasises the importance of the air we breathe and the desire to live. I loved it so much that I hope to read her first novel, The Mountain Can Wait.

With my thanks to NetGalley and to Random House for my review copy.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Random House UK Transworld Digital (19 Mar. 2020)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Print length ‏ : ‎ 320 pages

5 thoughts on “Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipciger

  1. It sounds like a powerful read, Margaret. I always think it’s most effective when an author explores larger themes like love, connectedness to life, and so on by looking at the lives of individual people. And these characters do sound interesting.

    Like

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