Sarah Leipciger, the author of Coming Up for Air, writes: "My novel is inspired by both the myth and the facts surrounding the 19th-Century deathmask of L’Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine). L’Inconnue challenged me to consider our innate desire to lay hands on artefacts whose existence began before us and which will continue long after we’re gone. This yearning took me to Paris where an artisan named Loic still produces copies of the mask. I wanted to touch it, to smell the plaster, an experience which informed my work as I concocted a fiction to weave through the unbelievable true story of this deathmask with which, whether we are aware or not, we are all familiar."
Read the opening chapter now.
L'Inconnue (The Unknown Woman)
Paris, France, 1899
This is how I drowned. I stood beneath the arch of the Pont Alexandre III, on the Left Bank of the slick and meandering Seine. Moon-silver, cold. I took off my coat and boots, and folded my coat neatly, and laid it over my boots, which I lined up side by side with the tips pointing down to the water. I stood quietly for a few minutes, watching the surface of the river form soft little peaks that folded into themselves again and again and again.
I took a step closer to the water so I could peer down its throat. But this was the gut of night, and even with the moonlight, the water was an opaque, bottomless thing. Not for the first time, I climbed into the underbelly of the bridge, and shuffled along the arch, hugging the pillars, towards the middle where the river was deeper. There was the smell of rust and cold steel and there was the smell of the river and there was a chance that, in this moment, things could have gone differently. A small sign from the world to tell me it would rather I stayed than left. The nasal call of some rook. A shooting star, a whistling boatman, a change in the wind. Nothing happened. So. I leaned forward, expelled my last breath, and let myself fall. The black water closed over my head like a toothless mouth
The cold was a shock, and so was the burden of my heavy clothes.
I opened my eyes to oblivion. What I thought had been my last breath was not my last breath – I had been wrong about that. For a few seconds, I was as calm as music, but then my body pedalled and thrashed; it didn’t want to drown. This wasn’t a new-found desire, after all, to live. This was about air. Oxygen. And my lack of it. My lungs, each of my muscles, hung suspended, seized in pain. I kicked until my head broke the surface, and in that moment I saw the bridge passing above me. I sucked a breath of sweet air before I went under again and wheeled my arms, looking for something solid to hold as I was carried downriver. My suffocating limbs became blocks of stone.
Eventually my body gave up fighting and began to sink and, beyond my control, my throat drew water. Water and river silt entered my trachea, my lungs. Something popped deep inside my ear. I vomited and, with a violent rush, more water, silt and leaves filled the evacuated space inside me. At last, a tingling started in my fingertips. It was remote, pleasant. I opened my eyes (though they may have been open all along) and there was something pale and dead floating very close to my face. My hand. And then darkness surrounded me, like steam from a hot bath clouding a mirror, and a feeling grew too; it was as if I’d been handed the universe in a glass jar. All I had to do was open it. Just as my heart was pumping its last beats, I was hooked at the waistband by a pole and lifted on to the hard deck of a grain barge. And this is where I died.