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Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipcigar

Coming Up For Air follows three people’s stories across three time zones linked by the theme of water. It starts by creating a narrative behind the resuscitation mannequin used across the world. ’Resuscitation Annie’ is based on the death mask cast from a woman found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s. She was never identified. Leipciger creates a beautiful narrative of how this woman might have lived in the period before her death.

We are then moved to the mid 20th Century, and a toy maker who is haunted by loss linked to water. Then from the 1980s to the present day we follow the story of a young woman drowning in her own lungs due to cystic fibrosis. The themes of loss and water weave these three tales together and even the reading process echoes these themes, because the novel inspires reflection and thoughts of our own mortality. It’s a quiet and introspective reading experience. I found myself thinking a lot about my own loss, my husband died of pneumonia and primary progressive MS in 2007 and also drowned in his own lungs. However, my MS is progressing and I wondered about my own life to come and the ways in which I do follow in his footsteps. That sounds like a morbid reflection, but there is a comfort in the shared elements of these experiences one hundred years apart. It made me think of the Jungian collective consciousness and how much of what we know is shared knowledge.

Water is a metaphor for life. We need it to live. We are drawn towards it – think how many visits we make to the sea, riverside attractions and streams. We build cities around rivers and prioritise sea views when we book a special holiday. We find it exhilarating and welcoming in equal measure. I go into warm water in order to soothe pain, to feel weightless and be able to move easier. It’s amazing how something can give us life, but also have the potential to suffocate, submerge and wash us away. It is strange for me to think about that moment when I float gently in the water and feel cushioned and pain free, but then also think that fluid in my own body could kill me.

The characters in the novel illustrate this dichotomy between life being given and taken away. We each make sense of tragedy in our own ways. For one, water takes life away but also takes away the pain and despair she has felt at the loss of love. For another, a macabre invention is a way out of feeling unbearable grief. A girl fights against a terrible disease that’s literally filling her lungs. Every one of these characters is in a fight with life – trying to live as long as possible, to live with unbearable pain, to leave a life they can no longer bear. Our experiences are not isolated from one another, they are all connected. It made me think about the point at which we truly leave this life. Is it when the heart stops beating or is it when there was no one left in this world to remember us.

This novel made me resolve to talk about Jerzy more, even with my new stepdaughters and nephews who didn’t meet him. I tell them he was charming, cheeky and clever. That when you lose someone the love continues. I found this novel moving, reflective and strangely hopeful. Whatever we experience in life, someone else will have been through it. It made me think of E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End and the exhortation to ‘only connect’.


Hello, I am Hayley and I run Lotus Writing Therapy and The Lotus Readers blog. I am a counsellor, workshop facilitator and avid reader.

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