Coming Up For Air – Sarah Leipciger

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*I received a free ARC of this book, with thanks to the author, Transworld Books – Random House UK and NetGalleyThe decision to review and my opinions are my own.*


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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.




There are three separate stories tied together in Coming Up for Air by the common themes of water, drowning, air and resuscitation.

We begin with an anonymous girl in France, drowning herself by jumping into the Seine.  The story then tracks back over the events in her life that led her to that tipping point, whilst keeping her identity concealed from the reader.  This story is a fictional imagining of a real figure, as an anonymous girl did indeed drown in the Seine and her death mask was used as the basis for the resuscitation doll that is used to teach CPR, and has saved the life of many a drowning victim since then.

Interspersed with this tale of comfortable servitude and doomed love is a heartbreaking story of a toy-making father in Norway who has experienced the tragedy of a loved one drowning and is inspired to turn his skills towards creating something useful, using the beautiful anonymous death mask he has inherited as a template.

The third story belongs to Anouk, in Canada in the 80s, as she lets us into the intimate details of her life with cystic fibrosis: drowning in her own body’s mucous daily and obsessed with swimming in natural waters whenever possible.  We also get glimpses into the pain of her mother, Nora, as she attempts to negotiate happiness out of a life committed to each breath taken by another.

All three stories have a haunting sadness about them, as they all tell of young lives limited by drowning in some form or another.  The stories weave in and out of each other, but never really come together into a cohesive whole, as there is only Resusci-Anne and lungs full of water to connect them.  However the writing is poetically beautiful and captures the minutiae of a young girl’s life in Paris, the unbearable ache of parental grief, and the stunning shock of icy cold water on a beleaguered young body.

Sarah Leipciger has taken a kernel of fact, and written in a fascinating fictional backstory that leaps between decades and continents, showing us that lives can be linked in unexpected ways, completely unknown to ourselves.


This is how I drowned.  I stood beneath the arch of the Pont Alexandre III, on the Left Bank of the slick and meandering Seine.  Moonsilver, cold.  I took off my coat and boots, and folded my coat neatly, and laid it over my boots, which I lined up side by side with the tips pointing down to the water.  I stood quietly for a few minutes, watching the surface of the river form soft little peaks that folded into themselves again and again and again.

I took a step closer to the water so I could peer down its throat.  But this was the gut of the night, and even with the moonlight, the water was an opaque, bottomless thing.  Not for the first time, I climbed into the underbelly of the bridge, and shuffled along the arch, hugging the pillars, towards the middle where the river was deeper.  There was the smell of rust and cold steel and there was the smell of the river and there was a chance that, in this moment, things could have gone differently.  A small sign from the world to tell me it would rather I stayed than left.  The nasal call of some rook.  A shooting star, a whistling boatman, a change in the wind.  Nothing happened.  So.  I leaned forward, expelled my last breath, and let myself fall.  The black water closed over my head like a toothless mouth.

– Sarah Leipciger, Coming Up For Air


Author Sarah Leipciger

You can follow Sarah Leipciger on Twitter and Goodreads.

Coming Up For Air is available on Amazon right now!



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