No spoilers here: the first line of Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air is “This is how I drowned.” The narrator who delivers it is inspired by L’Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine), a young turn-of-the-20th-century Parisian woman who may or may not have actually existed. According to repeated stories, her body was plucked from the river and her supposed death mask inspired the likes of Nabokov, Rilke, and Camus. The anonymous woman’s face was also the model for Resusci Anne, the mannequin upon which, since 1960, people around the world have learned the technique of mouth-to-mouth cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
As if taking on a story that already blurs fact and fiction and spans centuries and continents were not enough, Leipciger weaves two further threads into her novel. The first involves Pieter, a fictional stand-in for the Norwegian toymaker who designed Resusci Anne in the 1950s. The second is about Anouk, a young girl with cystic fibrosis growing up in Ontario in the 1980s. Subtle echoes of themes and imagery in Leipciger’s evocative prose work to connect these three very different narrative strands. Each story also features preoccupations with swimming and bodies of water, from the Seine to the North Sea to the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario.
“What mattered were the parts of the story that were unknowable,” Leipciger writes. She uses fiction to its full advantage to bring L’Inconnue to life as a young woman from the countryside who arrives in Paris to work as a lady’s companion. With rich sensory and historical detail, she deftly portrays Paris and shows how an ill-fated love affair sets off a series of events leading L’Inconnue to the river’s edge.
A domestic tragedy also brings Pieter to the brink, from which he tells the story of his childhood, marriage, and family, with the sea and swimming as constants in his experience. And then there is Anouk’s story, told in the third person from the perspectives of the girl and her mother. The narrative follows the family as they grapple with Anouk’s diagnosis, extending over three decades as her symptoms worsen and she becomes unable to do the things she loves – most particularly swimming. On a symbolic level, Anouk’s disease brings with it a sort of drowning from within.
While the source material involving L’Inconnue and Resusci Anne is fascinating, and each narrative thread is interesting in its own right, the stories in the book don’t ever connect deeply enough to create real novelistic tension, and the result is a kind of shapelessness. That said, Leipciger’s prose is rich and stirring, especially regarding the extended imagery of water throughout. These strengths help make Coming Up for Air a worthwhile read.