Back in 2015 I read a debut so striking it more than lived up to the superlatives liberally scattered in its press release. That was Sarah Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait, anchored in its Canadian backwoods setting by its gorgeous descriptive language. As you can imagine, then, my hopes for her second novel were sky-high, tempered with a pinch of apprehension. Coming Up for Air is very different from Leipciger’s first novel, weaving together the stories of a nineteenth-century French woman, a Norwegian toymaker and a Canadian journalist.
A young woman jumps into the Seine on a frigid night in 1899. She’s an orphan, sent to work as a lady’s companion by the aunt who’s resented her since her mother died just after giving birth. Madame Debord watches her centimes closely, spending much of her time in bed, indulging herself in wine and cake. Fresh from the country, her new employee is entranced by Paris. Over the year she’s there her heart is broken but she finds a new kind of love, one which overwhelms her. In the middle of the twentieth century, the son of a Norwegian toymaker diverts the sorrow of a terrible loss into developing a plastic doll. When a scheme is devised to teach resuscitation skills, a dummy is needed and he’s summoned to Baltimore. In the early twenty-first century, a Canadian journalist is awaiting a transplant, her lungs shredded by cystic fibrosis. These three very different characters are connected in ways which becomes satisfyingly clear as the novel ends.
She saw a face that would, with its laconic smile, transcend time and fact. Smooth as cream, a face on to which anyone could paint anything they wanted. It was pretty but not too pretty. Innocent but also wise.
Leipciger deftly interweaves her three narratives, each equally absorbing, skipping back and forth in time yet shifting perspective so smoothly that the whole coheres beautifully. Each of the three protagonists are firmly rooted in their stories. The claustrophobia and strain of raising a child with a deadly illness, the searing pain and dull ache of grief and the disappointments of love are all vividly, sometimes viscerally, portrayed, always with compassion.
Afterwards, in the darkness of our room, I searched for her but, even pressed against me, she was missing
The descriptive writing I’d so admired in Leipciger’s debut is just as impressive, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of nineteenth-century Paris as strikingly as the natural beauty of Ottawa and Norway, but it’s the storytelling that captivated me this time. The Author’s Note elucidates the factual basis of Leipciger’s fiction, a pleasing story in itself, but her reimagining fleshes out its bare bones beautifully, bringing it vividly to life. It’s been five years since the sublime The Mountain Can Wait and perhaps it will be another five or more until Leipciger’s third novel but for writing of this quality, I can be patient.
Doubleday: London 2020 9780857526519 320 pages Hardback