Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
The Outrun has recently been shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize, awarded annually to a work that engages with medical themes. That’s because, put simply, it’s a memoir about Amy Liptrot’s slide into alcoholism and her subsequent recovery; she also mulls over her father’s history of mental illness and the strain it put on her family. And yet it is about so much more that I’m tempted to say alcoholism is only the backstory, not the main thrust. Liptrot grew up on mainland Orkney, a tight-knit Scottish community she was eager to leave as a teenager but found herself returning to a decade later, washed up after the dissolute living and heartbreak she left behind in London. A simple existence, close to nature and connected to other people, was just what she needed during her first two years of sobriety. Her atmospheric writing about the magical Orkney Islands and their wildlife, rather than the ruminating on alcoholism, is what sets the book apart.
‘The Outrun’ is a field on Liptrot’s father’s farm, along the western coast of the mainland. In a mostly treeless landscape, it is a particularly bleak spot buffeted by wind. Liptrot’s father was a manic depressive and her mother an evangelical fundamentalist. All in all it was a life of extremes, and from childhood onward she was a risk-taker, ‘not worrying about the consequences, always seeking sensation and raging against those who warned me away from the edge. My life was rough and windy and tangled.’ London seemed to represent freedom and new beginnings, but it turned into its own kind of prison: a numbing rotation of temp jobs, parties and raves. Liptrot drank alone in a succession of rented flats; she drank until she fell in the canal, until she got attacked by a stranger, until she drove her boyfriend away.
Help came in the form of AA and a taxpayer-funded community detox at a London rehab centre, which she attended every weekday. Nearing age 30 and clean at least temporarily, Liptrot left London and went back to Orkney. This is where the book finally comes to life. Although the six London/alcoholism chapters give a good sense of the disorientation that comes with being drunk or hungover all the time, there are too many generalities and not enough of a feeling of time passing. Compare this to Bill Clegg’s superb memoir of crack cocaine addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, in which the repetition of scenes of using captures the vicious cycle of his life.
Liptrot is also wont to make unsubtle, forced connections between what she sees on the islands and her alcoholic past: ‘like the boat, I was in a precarious position’ or ‘I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together.’ At times I found her reflections to be rather shallow: ‘I missed the moment where inhibitions gave way’ and ‘was finding it hard to be restrained’; ‘I have become my father.’ I wondered if the alcoholism narrative might have been better broken up into mini flashbacks nestled within the Orkney material, so that the power of the Orkney setting would never feel diluted.
As it is, I much preferred the later chapters of the book, where Liptrot writes about the quiet life she made for herself back on Orkney. She assisted her father with lambing and then volunteered with the RSPB, surveying corncrakes in the early mornings. On a cetacean theme, she read Moby-Dick, explored a beached whale carcass, and wondered if the waxy blob her father kept in the barn could actually be ambergris. New interests in astronomy, sea swimming and snorkelling filled in the time and energy she’d once devoted to drinking: ‘I am free-falling but grabbing these things as I plunge. … [N]ow I find my happiness and flight in the world around me.’
People helped, too. When she lodged at the RSPB warden’s cottage on the tiny island of Papa Westray, or Papay (‘about half the area of Hackney but [with] just a hundred-thousandth of the population’), she found the kind of varied community she never had in London, where people tend to enclose themselves in a bubble of others just like them. Although Liptrot was always uncomfortable with AA’s language about a Higher Power, she acknowledges that she needed to rely on something outside of herself – whether that was the people she interacted with on Orkney or her online contacts, a lifeline in such a remote setting.
Many of these chapters arose from a regular column Liptrot wrote for the Caught by the River website, so some of the best ones, like “Abandoned Islands,” read like stand-alone essays. That plus the slightly clichéd treatment of alcoholism means I cannot unreservedly recommend this to all memoir readers, but if you’ve been to Orkney or harbour a wish to explore Scotland’s islands, there are parts of the book you absolutely should not miss.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the U.S. and U.K., and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun (Canongate: London, 2016). 978-1782115472, 280 pp., hardback.
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