Sarah Leipciger (photo: Teri Pengilley)

Sarah Leipciger’s first novel, The Mountain Can Wait (Tinder Press, 2015) was at the time, in London, compared to another novel set in the same part of British Columbia, Freya North’s love story, The Turning Point . The moral complexity and gritty descriptions of Leipciger’s novel make hers the better read. For the review of Leipciger’s second novel, Coming Up for Air, I’ve turned to an author who was in the UK around the same time, Louise Ells.
Sarah Leipciger left Canada in 2001 for Korea and Southeast Asia. Winner of THIS Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt, she is doing a PhD in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, in London, where she lives with her husband and three children, while also teaching creative writing to men in prisons. She is at work on her third novel, also set in Canada.

“Is it death when your heart stops beating? When you stop taking breath? Is it death when the rivers that run through your mind turn black? Or is it death, finally, when there is no one left alive who remembers you?” )

Sarah Leipciger, Coming Up For Air, p. 150

Louise Ells reviews Coming Up For Air (Transworld Publishers and House of Anansi Press paperback 2020) by Sarah Leipciger

Has a novel ever been so perfectly titled? The idea of needing to breathe appears and reappears through three plot lines. The book opens “This is how I drowned,” so it’s not a spoiler to mention that death by drowning occurs. But characters also rise for air when struggling in relationships, with the unfamiliar, and due to limitations imposed by an illness. Again and again the reader is reminded that breathing is necessary for life and one thing all living creatures have in common.

Reading this book is not dissimilar to ocean diving, going down through various zones, deeper, deeper, deeper still, eyes adjusting to the loss of light as needed. On its surface, this novel comprises glimpses into the lives of three seemingly unrelated people: a nameless girl living in Paris at the turn of the nineteenth century, Pieter, a Norwegian toy maker in the 1950s, and Anouk, a teenager growing up in rural Ontario in the late 1980s. But to leave it at that would be to call a river ‘blue’ or an ocean ‘green.’ Their lives connect in ways they’ll never know.

Long before the three plot lines intersect, metaphors converge: “The river is breathing for her.” (p. 302) “The river … tumbling and spilling through the heart of the city, through the heart of the story. Rippler of breath. Catcher of light. Taker of lives.” (p. 294) “River is life and death both.” (p. 286) “… the anaesthetist … keeps him alive until the surgery is finished … and the living body pulled back to the surface.” (p. 284) Beyond multiple watery metaphors, there are toys, illnesses, death, and breathing.

Big subjects (death, rape, postpartum depression) and the important questions (What makes a family? Whose life is worth saving? How do we survive loss?) are explored with grace and power. Father of two, Pieter concludes that “…these are the sorts of things that build a life: crossing water to another country and wondering about ghosts and suffering the humiliation of being bested by an animal dumber than you…” (p. 87). Later still he describes the joys of life as “Biting into the flesh of an apple, or melting ice cream on your tongue…” (p. 286).

L’inconnue de la Seine (masque mortuaire) 1900

This novel has a prologue and an epilogue, and each one absolutely earns its place. They form an integral part of the plot line, and reinforce the idea of lives as cyclical and fragments of a larger story. There is a sense of history repeating (and retelling) itself as various characters see, or imagine they see, ghosts. The repetitive use of telling details also creates echoes across time. “Here was time, folding over on itself.” (p. 260) Five newborn mice are described as “curled like cashew nuts” (p. 218); fifty-seven years earlier a first kiss takes place over a bag which holds, “like baby mice nestled together, cashews.” (p. 113) The odour of decaying bodies in a Parisian morgue is alluded to in Pieter’s kitchen years later as he experiments with plastic-making.

Chapters are titled with the name of the point-of-view character, the location, and the year all or most of the action occurs. It’s an effective and subtle way to signpost (apart from Chapter 7, which I’d argue should be labelled 1953 rather than 1951). The novel is so nearly flawlessly written, I questioned a few moments when it appeared to slip. (There is repetition when Anouk is picking raspberries with her father and the identical information is presented twice in a row. Is this a minor typo, or is Anouk already starting to write her version of this outing?)

Beyond the physical locations (Paris and Nice, Pembroke and Toronto, Stavanger and Åkrehamn), the novel’s settings include many liminal places. There are trains and train stations, hospitals (especially at night), seasons (especially autumn with its fallen and falling leaves), shorelines, and multiple bodies of water. Again and again characters grasp at fleeting moments even as they are reminded that change is the only constant. Of Lake Ontario, Anouk notes that “Try as they might, (humans) could not stop what the water was doing.” (p. 165)

Though populated with both males and females, this novel focuses on the lives of girls and women. Women are caregivers, have knowledge, and do most of the vital (unacknowledged) work, saving lives while “the learned men argued.” (p. 247) A “dim-witted” girl (who is, of course, not dim at all) rescues a mask which in turn becomes a key component of a life-saving invention. After a car crash, Nora realises that her husband “hadn’t known what to do. But she had.” (p. 140) In Paris, the character known only as L’Inconnue wins an argument without saying a word because “If I learned one useful thing from Tante Huguette, it was the power of silence.” (p. 146) These women are aware of their strengths and abilities.

Characters are often aware of the process of breathing — inhaling and exhaling. Nora, upon waking from a dream of falling, compares it to birth and death. “That total loss of control, that endless inhalation without the response of the exhale.” (p. 99) Immediately after the car crash, she describes “…no thought or movement, only the exhale.” (p. 122) In Paris, L’Inconnue, discovering that she is (only) going to be blackmailed “…exhaled for what seemed like the first time in days.” (p. 179) Anouk, years later “… opens her mouth, and, as if coming up from deep water, inhales.” (p. 303)

Readers may appreciate the characters reminding them, repeatedly, to breathe, to raise their heads and discover they are here and now, not actually in Paris in 1898, or Norway in 1931, or rural Ontario in 1987. Some lines of writing are so poetic they demand pause. “The phantom call of a loon echoed as if there were no echo in the world until there were loons in the world.” (p. 239) As well, Leipciger’s syntax forces breaks. This choice leads to my singular critique: too many characters share the same verbal tic of splitting sentences with periods, or ending a sentence with an unexpected word like “but” or “I.”  Sometimes the sudden stop underlines the importance of a thought, mimics the momentary loss of speech, or hints at the unspoken. Pieter: “I avoided home, your mother and sister, moulded plastic into toys, and repeated to myself the story … and how it never would have happened if only I.” (p. 220) L’Inconnue: “And I. Lay there, dead.” (p. 249-50) Nora: “If you want to, but. My eyes are better than yours.” (p. 120)

The first few times I encountered these full stops, I was pulled from the story, but I soon became accustomed to it, realised it was a deliberate choice, and one more suggestion that humans are more similar to, than different from, each other. This idea is emphasized when two or more characters come to identical conclusions about dealing with loss. Nora thinks “You could get used to anything.” (p. 121) and Pieter declares “You can get used to anything, Bear.” (p. 84)

Deeper still, beneath the plot lines, this novel examines stories and storytelling. How and why do humans tell stories? In recalling a long ago incident, Pieter thinks of “A shiny redness, which only she and I knew was there, because she was my wife, and this was part of our story…” (p. 133). Later he insists “People die and maybe they leave something behind, a wristwatch or a ring…, but none of that means anything without the story. It’s what keeps us here after we’re gone, and we’re only truly dead when those who know our stories are also dead.” (p. 82) How do stories work? The “dim-witted” girl knows that “What mattered were the parts of the story that were unknowable.” (p. 294) and learns “…the whimsical nature of story to spontaneously awaken in this way, to live and to breathe.” (p. 293) Adult Anouk, who has always written, and becomes a published author, knows “Stories were easy enough to find in Toronto” (p. 256). When she experiences a life-changing moment she discovers “…this is, at last. A story worth telling.” (p. 302) And the story she knows is worth telling is the story the reader has just read.

And then, the epilogue. A happy ending, full of love and hope and life.

Louise Ells (photo: Elizabeth Ells)

Louise Ells grew up only 30 miles from Anouk’s home, and spent her childhood summers swimming in the Ottawa River. The author of Notes Towards Recovery, a thematically-linked short story collection, she earned her PhD in Creative Writing from Anglia Ruskin University, and was a Hawthornden Fellow in 2017. Her novel, Lies I Told My Sister, is forthcoming from Latitude 46 Publishing in 2023.

Stavanger, Norway (photo: trolvag)

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Posted by Debra Martens

author, editor