James Bradley

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The Outrun By Amy Lip­trot Canon­gate, 304pp, $35

Per­haps sur­pris­ingly for a book so deeply con­cerned with ad­dic­tion, Amy Lip­trot’s thrillingly raw mem­oir The Outrun opens not with a scene of ab­jec­tion or dis­lo­ca­tion but with a glos­sary, a list of words that be­gins “bonxie: great skua, burn: stream, byre: barn”, and pro­ceeds through a se­ries of other strange yet haunt­ingly fa­mil­iar words (“haar: sea fog … tan­gles: sea­weed”) to­ward “whaups”, or curlews, and “yole”, or sim­ple boat.

The words are Or­ca­dian, the di­alect of Scots still spo­ken in the Orkneys, yet in their speci­ficity they speak not just to the long his­tory of hu­man habi­ta­tion on that windswept spray of is­lands to Bri­tain’s north, but to some­thing deeper: a way of be­ing in the world that is rooted in an aware­ness of the land­scape and its par­tic­u­lar­i­ties.

There is an irony to this, not least be­cause the ver­sion of her story Lip­trot chooses to tell is, at least in part, one of flight, es­cape, self-era­sure. Hav­ing grown up on the is­lands, Lip­trot was, by her teens, des­per­ate to es­cape, and so, like so many other Or­ca­di­ans, headed south to Lon­don, ea­ger for “the hot pulse of the city”.

Yet once in Lon­don, she found her­self un­moored. Like many peo­ple, in her late teens and early 20s she drank, took drugs and danced, en­joy­ing the lib­er­a­tion they pro­vided. But as the years passed and her friends drank and par­tied less, she “drank more and par­tied alone”, the first stage in a spi­ral down­ward into al­co­holism and de­spair that ended only at 30 when, hav­ing lost her job and her lover and only nar­rowly avoided be­ing vi­o­lently raped, she booked her­self into re­hab and, in its af­ter­math, headed back north, to the is­lands where she grew up.

The ver­sion of her­self Lip­trot con­jures in these pages does not make for easy read­ing. She is un­spar­ing in her de­pic­tion of her own ex­cesses, the aw­ful, repet­i­tive trans­gres­sions that alien­ated even her most loyal friends, the lack of con­trol, the cun­ning (“I … knew the lo­ca­tion of ev­ery twenty-four hour garage and off-li­cence within a five mile ra­dius”), the des­per­ate self­pity and self-dis­gust. Like­wise, her ac­count of re­hab and what we glibly de­scribe as “re­cov­ery” is grimly un­sen­ti­men­tal, cap­tur­ing with painful ex­ac­ti­tude not just the bleak, un­end­ing, whiteknuckle process of liv­ing with­out al­co­hol but, some­how just as im­por­tantly, shat­ter­ing many of her as­sump­tions about her life and its priv­i­leges, ex­pos­ing her to “spheres of ex­pe­ri­ence or- bit­ing far away from me­dia-sat­u­rated grad­u­ates bitch­ing on Twit­ter”.

That sense of lurk­ing ex­trem­ity never re­ally fades (“Ex­cuse me while I smash up the drum kit in my head,” she quips at one point) and even once she makes it back to the is­lands, hol­lowed out and nerves ex­posed, she is an un­easy pres­ence, un­sure of her place in the com­mu­nity. Yet as she be­gins to re­build her­self, piece by piece, she be­gins to con­struct a new, less de­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship with her­self.

This process is en­livened by the force and acu­ity of Lip­trot’s writ­ing. Im­ages of vi­o­lence and sud­den, un­ex­pected death re­cur: a lamb crushed to death by its mother, a col­lie pup that sets off “chas­ing rab­bits in a gale” and plunges over a cliff, never to be seen again, boats smashed on rocks.

But these im­ages are in­ter­wo­ven with a won­der­fully evoked sense of the land and its pres­ence, whether in the de­scrip­tions of curlew chicks, “feel­ing their soft, hotly beat­ing bod­ies’’, or the “liq­uid geom­e­try” of flock­ing star­lings. And — sig­nif­i­cantly — these aware­nesses are not pred­i­cated on a re­jec­tion of tech­nol­ogy or moder­nity. In­stead, they co­ex­ist in il­lu­mi­nat­ing and of­ten sur­pris­ing ways, whether in the form of man­age­ment schemes de­signed to pre­serve threat­ened birds like the corn­crake, or Lip­trot’s ten­dency to treat the land­scape of the is­lands and the in­ward spa­ces of the in­ter­net as con­tigu­ous.

In this The Outrun fol­lows the lead of a num­ber of re­cent books that blur the bound­ary be­tween the en­vi­ron­men­tal and the per­sonal, most ob­vi­ously He­len Mac­Don­ald’s justly cel­e­brated H is for Hawk, but also (in one of those cu­ri­ous pieces of pub­lish­ing syn­chronic­ity) Shet­land Is­lan­der Malachy Tal­lack’s ac­count of his own jour­ney home­ward, 60 De­grees North, which was pub­lished last year. And while The Outrun lacks some of the in­tel­lec­tual ar­ma­ture of H is for Hawk, it is just as elec­tri­cally aware of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of lan­guage to il­lu­mi­nate our aware­ness of the nat­u­ral world.

That these ques­tions now pos­sess such ur­gency is no coin­ci­dence, given the scale of the en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter un­fold­ing around us. Yet it is to Lip­trot’s credit that her grow­ing sense of con­nect­ed­ness never tips over into glib ser­mon­is­ing or pat nar­ra­tives of re­cov­ery. In­stead we are left with the un­easy self-knowl­edge of the re­cov­er­ing ad­dict and, per­haps sig­nif­i­cantly, a re­minder that those same forces that led her to de­stroy her­self can be turned to more pos­i­tive ends, “search­ing for elu­sive corn­crakes … swim­ming in cold seas … com­ing back home”. lat­est novel is Clade.

A cot­tage in the re­mote Orkneys

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