Coming Up For Air by Sarah Leipciger

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Maybe life could be like this, like a finger broken and never treated, healed but crooked. Or a leg. You could walk with a limp forever. You could get used to anything.

Can we truly get used to anything? To a life spent craving the taste of air, as you fight your own lungs to stay alive? Can you get used to a quiet place when you crave the city, noise? Will you ever get used to the absence of your greatest treasure, as it slipped away one quiet brutal day? Does being an unwanted child, under the charity of your ‘keeper’ until your free to earn your own keep as a lady’s companion, ever becomes as natural as breathing? What happens if you discover even this freedom can be weighted, and water so welcoming? The novel opens with a drowning death and it is a passing that echoes all throughout history.

This novel takes the true story of L’Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine)  dragged out of the river Seine in Paris around the 1880’s, and breathes life back into by creating a backstory for the mysterious lady. The dead woman’s face was said to be so beautiful that a death mask was made. This sweet face went on to become popular in the art scene serving as a muse for artists and writers. Later, she is of interest to men of science and medicine as well. The mask having a much longer life than the woman behind it, almost begs her story to be told. How does this unfortunate young woman intertwine with the other characters within the story? Through love, loss, illness, desire, grief, hope, and science. How does a Norwegian toy-maker find himself inventing something life altering for future generations on the tide of his grief? Why does he matter so much or his memories?

Leipciger writes about the many faces of love, and not all of them are romantic. The biggest pain in the heart can be for a child. Places factor into the story as much as circumstances. Where we stay, why we leave, how we fail our children and ourselves. In this novel water is always waiting, both as friend and fiend. It expresses the brokenness we feel, whether due to a failing body or the inability to remain steadfast in a marriage. Suffocating in a place where every single thing seems barren, or under the thumb of the person we owe our livelihood to. There are so many ways a person can drown, in and out of the water. Drown in the heart, the lungs, under the relentless scrutiny of the public eye.

1898: A young woman works as a lady’s companion for one Madame Debord, a nervous Parisienne whose had enough excitement for one life. Through Debord we get a taste of what it meant to be a female back then, as she speaks of her past and shares confidences about miscarriages, her husband, and how his family was a looming threat once.  Her lady’s companion knows all too well what it means to have no choices in life beyond mean survival, after-all it is why she is here herself, working for Madame. She will soon make discoveries of her own, of the body, and the heart. Someone will awaken her desires, but they are forbidden ones.  Her soul will sore above water, but one must always come down. The water is always waiting, and people are always watching, ready to take advantage.

Anouk’s story expresses what a family goes through when a child is diagnosed with a serious disease. The symbolism cannot be lost, that a person can drown on dry land and do very little to prevent it. The helpless parents are living as if on the precipice of a cliff, waiting for the moment that could be the last, yet maintaining the discipline they must adhere to in order to keep their heads for their cherished daughter. It takes its toll on a marriage, more so when each long to be in different places. We get both Nora and Anouk’s perspective and it is painful. Nora begins remembering the early days of the late 1970’s when due to faulty genes Nora and her husband Red are initiated into a life they never expected with Anouk’s birth. Nora is “a fish swimming against the current”, the current is their family living in a place that to Nora is isolation. All the snow, nature, distance from other people, like a dead zone. The Canada she longs for is Toronto, where the hospital is closer, and everything is far more convenient. Should motherhood be a price paid, giving up all desires, needs? Anouk is like an amphibian, who loves the water and has desires of her own, saddened by the demands her illness makes on her parents and worse, trying to have normalcy, never knowing if she has a future at all. Weakened by disease, made fun of by the other children, is there a point in looking to the future, one that may never exist?

Tender is the tale of the toy-maker and his sweet Bear. A man reminiscing about his childhood, memories of his grandparents and now his own family. How the wind blows, and every dream can scatter into the water, with no rhyme nor reason. Nothing to be done, nothing to predict, no way of knowing when tragedy will strike. Just a family filled with happiness, until…

 

It is through one person’s grief that another’s salvation will be born. A tale as old as time itself. Life is a river, and water is a lover or a grave for each character in this heartbreaking novel. It is about our first breath and our last. Beautifully written.

Publication Date: March 3, 2020

House of Anansi Press

 

Adèle: A Novel by Leila Slimani

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She wishes she were just an object in the midst of a horde. She wants to be devoured, sucked, swallowed whole.

Adèle is more than bored, every desire she has is insatiable and nothing is going to fill that void. Adèle’s husband Richard is a surgeon who loves to spoil her with a gorgeous apartment in Paris,  has pulled strings to get her the job she has as a journalist for a successful newspaper but her enthusiasm has died at work, as much as her joy in mothering their son, Lucien. Apart from fearing a baby would ruin her body and rob her idleness when she found herself pregnant, she comes to love her son but even that love couldn’t tame her urges. There is a line, “For now, she remains in her filth, suspended between two worlds, the mistress of the present tense.”  Filth it is, she is numb, she isn’t really alive and there isn’t a sexual encounter anywhere that can cure what ails her. There isn’t anything erotic about her encounters either, and I don’t feel it’s meant to be, though I labeled this under erotica for readers, because of the sex. She leaves each entanglement more soiled and broken, a life mounting in lies, disappearing from her own child for seedy encounters. On a superficial level she is easy to judge, there isn’t much to like about her , she has so much more than most people and we all know the argument is you can be just as unhappy with everything as someone who has nothing, but let’s just say her standing in life is quite comfortable, minus the struggles the majority of us cope with, a day in her cushy life would be a godsend, naturally this doesn’t endear her to most readers. She is certainly an object, over and over again, as still and devoid of life as a rock.

She is the saboteur of her own happiness and security. Then there is Richard, let’s talk about Richard. It’s easier not to acknowledge the cracks in your wife, to simply play the martyr and suffer for your beloved, to tune out. Then, when Richard finally must lift his head out of the dirt he’s buried it in,  he can play at savior or master depending on how you look at it. Richard can fix this, right? It’s so easy, it’s all about control. If he closes his eyes nice and tight, he won’t have to accept reality as it stands, right?  Just change the scenery, Richard knows best! We’re meant to feel sorry for him, and I do to a point, but he is as much the problem as Adèle’s sexual compulsions. Nothing about her trysts soothes her suffering, she is human wreckage. “She had always thought that a child would cure her.” Why are people always looking outside themselves for the cure?  Who really wants to save another person from themselves, and can you? Richard is always reaching out, trying to touch her it seems. She cannot be touched or reached, she cannot feel hence her desire to be swallowed whole, to be an object only. The novel could also be about the excruciating patience of Richard’s love, because only love that suffers is true? Right? Right? Is Richard just as sick? There is honesty though, in being in love with her still, love tangled in resentment, rage, and pain. His desire for her ‘violent and selfish’ is as corrupt as her own uncontrollable hunger and needs. They are both addicted, if you ask me. Both should be getting treatment. There is a slight peek into her family dysfunction, between she and her parents. Her own father clung to unhappiness,  life among the common people not good enough for him, the closeness she had with her father, who never saw the dirty girl she was, at least according to her mother, never let his ideal of her be defiled by who she truly was at her core, eyes closed to her antics. Is she this way because of her mother, or is it an illness her father had, a deep-rooted dissatisfaction that she inherited? We’ll never know as it’s not deeply explored, but the rot began in childhood. It seems it was an either/or. It’s dad or me! That her mother punishes her for being her father’s favorite.

She is easy to despise, to feel disgusted by. Beauty hides the ugly inside, that monster lurking that won’t look so appealing as time has its way with her. By the end, I was embarrassed for Adèle. It’s such a sad spiral, I spent most of the novel just feeling pity towards her, imagine living with all that rot within, all that indifference, to walk through life so numbed that you destroy everything you have just to feel. Tell me, who the hell wants to be pitied?

One of the saddest moments is when Adèle wishes she could confide in her mother. “She was a burden to her mother when she was a child. Now she has become an adversary…” a child that never had her mother’s tenderness, and maybe because of that faces such a destructive bitterness. Maybe it’s because I am a mother that I felt that moment like a gut punch. Who would Adèle have been if she knew a moment of guidance from her mother? Her mother’s adversary, imagine that.

Publication Date: January 15, 2019

Penguin Books

 

The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

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You have to be true, to be faithful to the photograph the family sometimes leaves. I am surprised to find out this is not done consistently.

Most of us don’t like to think about what happens after death, how the embalmer prepares the body, the work required to make our loved ones look as they did in life, our ‘last look’ at our beloved who is both present in body and yet not. In this literary fiction, Anne-Renée Caillé’s narrator plumbs the depths of her father’s experiences during his time as an embalmer. What seems like a macabre subject is handled with a far more matter of a fact manner. We modern-day people are removed from death, out of sight, out of mind. While a book of only 96 pages, some of the telling made my skin crawl, not so much for gruesome horror but that lives end in the strangest and saddest of ways.

Her father, at times with ‘a list of cases on hand’,  makes some of the deceased become more real by saying their names. His job, to make them who they were before the ravages of disease, accidents, murder, or even combat had his work cut out for him, and certainly there are cases where there isn’t the possibility of make-up saving the day, because only a closed casket is the option. There are indignities in dying, most of us just have to look away and let others handle the ugly details, never once giving it a thought yet knowing our time will come. Who can bear to ponder such things with so much living to do?

“The story is sensitive, they all are, but some are more disturbing.”

Through listening to her father, she wants to understand him, his choice of jobs where things are underground. Then there is illness in her own family, in her father just like his father before him but death’s movements can’t always be tracked and sometimes surprises us with the age old question, “Who is next?”

I can’t wait to read more by Anne-Renée Caillé. She is an author I will be following. I read this in one night.

Available Now

Coach House Books

Not a Clue: A Novel by Chloé Delaume, Dawn M Cornelio (Translator)

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You’re all even more sealed off from your environment than from yourselves, have been for a long time.

We are told in the beginning there are six patients and ‘you killed me. One of you or maybe each of you.” The murdered is Dr. Black, each of the accused patients at Paris’s St. Anne’s Hospital is gathered to play a life-size game of clue. The murderer really isn’t important, the novel lends itself to unraveling minds, and the writing can induce nervousness, anxiety, depression, confusion, anger, paranoia the list goes on. How to trust minds that don’t even trust themselves? This is not an easy read, and may well slip through the cracks of reader’s minds, myself included. I think I get it, some of it, but confess to being lost here and there. This is challenging reading, certainly creative writing that plays with and bites you in turns. I was exhausted, just as exhausted as the wounded characters. The author has lived through tragedy herself, I won’t go on about that, though certainly it must lend itself to her work as anything in life touches us, from tragedy to the most mundane moments, if you’re curious just look her up.

I got to the point that I didn’t care about killer, murderer and found I was far more invested in the why. Why is each patient sick, who brought them here or why did they come of ‘their own volition’. What about life disturbed this ‘chorus of misfits’ so much that they broke? There is a lot to trudge through, and if you aren’t one who reads literary fiction, who accuses certain books of being ‘too wordy’ then move along. “In her head, Aline was talking loud. In your head it’s always very easy to talk so loud you bother yourself.” There are certainly gems, beautiful writing between these pages. I’m not sure I’ve grasped the writer’s purpose but there seems to be any manner of meaning one can find.

Each patient brings their damage to the table, to the game. Life has had its way, and the result lies in forgetting, vacancy, or best yet becoming a revisionist. Aren’t we all, in our own precious way revisionists? Some look at themselves and are horrified, maybe it is better not to look at oneself too closely. One of my favorite lines “I can feel the word solitude.”  Solitude not a horror for the patient, but a comfort, a necessity. One of the b&l’s (The Bipolars and the Like) goes on to discuss the torment of memories, wanting to be emptied out. To express the pain of not wanting to accept the particular body given, well… it’s hard  not to the polish that little nugget of wisdom. To not understand in some circumstances that with so much internal struggle, you are bound to be swallowed by tidal waves. It’s eye-opening to think about the difference between temptation and those with illnesses they don’t chose. Never being able to avoid their mental torment as an alcoholic or drug addict can deny themselves (if even for a moment) their fix. Those with their poor polluted brains, their vanishing or rotting memories gathered together, afraid of who they are in the outside world, suspects, pariahs, discarded for your reading pleasure. Most didn’t have a say in their pollution, their fog.

Then there is the Omniscient Narratrix, a ‘psychological harassment’ to all fictional characters who should really be charged with a crime too, all those ‘repeated offenses’ against characters just trying to live, much like real people, without judgement or humiliation. A god, who wants to manage its cast, make them be better or worse than they are. Oh the hell of literature! Then there is the writer who won’t interfere, laughable because that’s all writers do is interfere. The characters in this novel are in revolt, and refuse to be managed! There will be no established form, this book is inhabited by characters that want to be left alone, to simply exist whether worse for wear or not, and remain unimproved if they so chose. Not A Clue thumbs it’s nose at how we say things, and Delaume disturbs the text, shakes things up. She is testing narrative conventions, breaking out of themes, toying with the setting, blowing up the plot because I am still not fully certain of the plot here. It works but it also confuses the hell out of you, or maybe just me.

If you want to read something wildly different, this is it. I liked it and at times found it aggravating, sort of like my own life. For me,  room I want to visit is what is real for the patients, not for arrogance of repairing them but simply to see their perspective. Not A Clue certainly is a unique read, though won’t be everyone’s drug of choice, ha.

Publication Date: December 1, 2018

University of Nebraska Press