Tag Archives: Coming Up For Air

Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger: Everything I’d hoped for…

Cover imageBack 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

My Wishlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:

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The Language of Birds                        Good Day?                                 A Stranger City

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The Hiding Game                                 Starling Days                             The Dutch House

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Olive, Again                                          Body Tourists                                    Adults

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The Warlow Experiment                    Say Say Say                                    Weather

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There Was Still Love                     Right After the Weather          Coming Up for Air

There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.

What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?

Books to Look Out For in March 2020: Part One

Cover imageMarch is full to bursting with potential treats. Hard to know where to start although the title I’ve chosen isn’t one I’m eager to read but I know vast numbers of others are, not that they can have failed to notice its appearance on the publishing horizon. Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light is the third in her trilogy which charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, ‘portrayed with passion, pathos and energy as politician, fixer, husband, father, subject and as a man who both defied and defined his age’ according to the publishers. I’m not saying I’ve no intention of reading it – H has popped his copy of Wolf Hall on my TBR pile – but I’m not champing at the bit. Don’t @ me as we say on Twitter.

My eager anticipation was saved for Coming Up for Air by Sarah Leipciger, whose debut I loved, which I read pretty well as soon as it turned up. Inspired by a true story, this new one is very different from The Mountain Can Wait, taking us from a young French girl’s suicide in 1899 to a toymaker in 1950s Norway to a present-day journalist in Canada, all of whom share a connection which becomes clear at the novel’s end. The blurb calls it ‘a bold, richly imagined novel about the transcendent power of storytelling and the immeasurable impact of every human life’ and I have to agree. Review to follow soon.

Evie Wyld’s third novel, The Bass Rock follows three women whose lives are linked to the eponymous rock in Scotland. In the early eighteenth-century Sarah flees accusations of witchcraft; newly-married Ruth arrives just after the Second World War and Viv makes a discovery about Ruth’s past while clearing out her parents’ house in the present day. ‘Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life. Intricately crafted and compulsively readable, The Bass Rock burns bright with anger and love’ say the publishers. I’ve yet to get around to reading All the Birds Singing but I remember being struck by the writing in Wyld’s first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice.

If The Bass Rock has much to say about women, James Scudamore’s English Monsters seems to be about men, specifically those who’ve endured boarding school, something H has described asCover image preparing you well for prison. Max is sent away aged ten, plunged into a world of arcane rules and punishments compensated for by the companionship of new friends. Several decades later, a long-buried secret surfaces bringing them back together. ‘Spanning several decades, English Monsters is a story of bonds between men – some nurturing, others devastating. It explores what happens when care is outsourced in the name of building resilience and character, and presents a beautiful and moving portrait of friendship’ according to the publishers. It’s an unusual subject and an interesting one for me.

Last year, two titles by Israeli authors made it on to my books of the year lists – Aylet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar and Etgar Keret’s Fly Already – which is what drew me to Emuna Elon’s House of Endless Waters in the hope of another interesting piece of Israeli fiction. After his mother dies, Yoel begins a search for the truth after seeing footage of her in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum with a small child that’s not him. His quest reveals a dark history of the city they both fled where Jewish children were hidden from the Nazis often at great cost. Much acclaimed in Israel, apparently.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening is about a much smaller domestic tragedy and its aftermath. A Dutch family is devasted with grief at the loss of their son, draining his ten-year-old sister’s world of curiosity and delight as she becomes caught up in disturbing fantasies. ‘A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s radical debut novel is studded with images of wild, violent beauty: a world of language unlike any other’ according to the publishers. Harrowing, I’m sure, but it does sound remarkable.

Lightening the tone, Janos Szekely’s Temptation follows Bela, left at birth in a Dickensian children’s home by his mother who takes herself off to Budapest. Aged fourteen, Bela is caught stealing shoes and his mother is forced to reclaim him. He finds himself a job in a grand hotel, manning the lift and meeting all manner of people from revolutionaries to beautiful heiresses. ‘A picaresque classic with a rich vein of bawdy humour, Temptation is an under-appreciated masterpiece of twentieth-century fiction. Rich, varied and endlessly entertaining, the novel creates a stunning panorama of Hungarian society through the travails of its singularly charming hero’ according to the publishers which sounds just the ticket to me, bringing to mind Wes Anderson’s wonderful movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Cover imageI was delighted when Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier popped up on my Twitter timeline. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Everett who has a prolific backlist, most of it not published here in the UK. His writing is often very funny, more than a little off the wall as seems to be the case with this one. The death of Not Sydney Poitier’s mother leaves him orphaned at eleven but with lots of shares in a successful company whose owner adopts him. Everett’s novel follows Not Sydney as he navigates a world which can’t quite place him. It’s described by the publisher as ‘a hilarious and irresistible take on race, class and identity’ and if past performance is anything to go by it’ll be a treat, although possibly of the Marmite variety.

That’s it for March’s first instalment. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should any have taken your fancy. More soon…