Hackney author tells how a mysterious death mask links to a well known invention

Sarah Leipciger

Hackney author Sarah Leipciger - Credit: Teri Pengilley

In the 1890s, a young woman's body was pulled out of the Seine.

And there the story might have ended if it wasn't for a mask - perhaps taken by a pathologist in the Paris morgue - that meant the unknown victim lived on after her death.

With its serene half-smile, 'L'Inconnue de la Seine' was widely reproduced. It hung on artists' walls, was compared by Albert Camus to the Mona Lisa, inspired songs, literary works by the likes of Nabokov, a ballet, and a well recognised invention. 

In her second novel Coming Up For Air, Hackney author Sarah Leipciger has imaginatively restored L'Inconnue's back story in a three way riff on drowning and resuscitation. It begins with a girl stepping off a bridge in Paris, then links to a Norwegian toy maker, who saves his young son from drowning, and to Canadian writer Anouk, who is awaiting a lung transplant after suffering from lifelong cystic fibrosis.

The mum-of-three plays on the myth-making behind the original tale - L'Inconnue's 'suicide', time and place of death, the making of the mask, are as invented as anything in the book, and in the gap between what happened and what might have happened she hopes to "retrieve a truth".

"The death mask was taken from the body of a young woman, it was said she was pulled from the Seine but that's not necessarily the truth," she says.

"She has been written about by other writers, depicted as a victim, someone without a voice, or a muse to a male poet or storyteller. I have tried to give her an identity, to play with a character who is actually dead and can discover things from beyond the grave. She can set the record straight and tell the world about the truth of the mask and how they got it terribly wrong."

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Her anonymous narrator has detachment. "She tells the story from a bird's eye view and doesn't have emotion about the things that happen to her. When she talks about the moment the plaster cast was taken off her face, she sees a split where whatever happens with the mask is separate from her." 

But Leipciger's narrative also concerns itself with how others are affected by the mask.

"It became quite popular in Europe around the 1930s and 40s and was used by a toy maker in a famous design that everyone knows once they are told - I won't say what because that will spoil the story but it seemed such a gift to this story.

"I am interested in how it touched different lives over a century, across the world, people who aren't even aware of the way in which they are bonded."

Leipciger, whose 2015 debut The Mountain Can Wait was about "capturing the Canadian landscape", teaches creative writing at City Lit. She spent several months pre-pandemic in the British Library researching the Paris chapters of the book, which came out during the first lockdown.

Book jacket for Coming Up For Air

Book jacket for Coming Up For Air - Credit: Tom Hoops

"My creative brain wasn't functioning back then but it's Ok now. I can think and be creative, it's just trying to fit it in. I used to get up at 5.30am to write when the children were babies, but I can't haul myself out of bed at that time now."

Her next novel is concerned with Canadian history for which she is reading the memoirs of indigenous Canadians. She hopes to visit later this year, "not for research, I just need to be in the landscape."

Leipciger came to London "for love" she says and has always lived in Hackney - first London Fields and now  Victoria Park.

But she adds: "Even though I have spent half my life here and my children are born and bred in England, I am forever tied to Canada. I don't even use the word homesick, but I feel connected and I still call it home."

Coming up For Air is published by Penguin £14.99.