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