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