The Outrun, Amy Liptrot
Review by Morag MacInnes
My first meeting with Amy Liptrot was inauspicious. A returning Orcadian, I was house hunting; the property, the agent said, had one of the best views in Orkney. She was right. The enormous kitchen window delivered a sweep of coastline, down to Skara Brae, and on the horizon Ben Hope and Ben Loyal shimmered mistily. The tiny front room was darker; mainly because the view there was blocked by a stiff tall girl, gazing out. As I entered, she left, very abruptly. I think there were slammed doors.
‘She’s a bit upset,’ the farmer said, laconically.
It was an understatement. At that point in her life she was out of control, lost, grieving over her parents' divorce and her own descent into drink, drugs and obsessive behaviour. But she was also writing the diary she’d kept since she was a child. The habit of introspection and self analysis never left her; in the end, it seems, it saved her, and gave the world this remarkably frank, yet perfectly controlled account of getting sober by embracing the natural world.
The Outrun is a vivid description of otherness – that sense, familiar to many islanders – not all of them young, either – that leaving is imperative, but so also is returning, and that there’s pain both ways. To city dwellers you are an exotic, a bit of rough. When you come back, your island eyes you with suspicion. When I was a child here, and returned from holiday to my granny in Buckie, on the East Coast, my schoolmates would dance round me shouting ‘you’re chantan! You’re chantan!’ It meant that my accent had changed; I had betrayed my roots; I’d been corrupted by the ‘sooth’. But my bullies were gentle; I was one of them, my father was born in Stromness.
For Liptrot, this ‘otherness’ is more profound. Her parents were English hippies seeking the good life. She has never had an Orcadian accent. Her family were very tall and blonde, in a squat dark county. Moreover, as she relates with restraint and love, her father was a manic depressive, her mother a born again Christian. We’re plunged into this world of extremes – ‘the edge’ she calls it – in the first few pages, where she describes how her birth triggered a manic episode; her father, straitjacketed, holds his baby daughter under helicopter blades, before he’s taken off the island for his own, and others’, safety. It may sound like sensationalist writing, this, but it’s not. Right through her account Liptrot uses imagery to connect life events with landscapes: the urban and rural, and, crucially for her recovery, the landscape of her mind. So the helicopter blades reappear later, alongside flashing lighthouse beams, in a meditation about her own wild shifts of mood, her desire for extremes.
The marketing of The Outrun has been very efficient. Her striking face, on a backdrop of rugged cliffs, is enough to make the weary jaded metropolitan grab for the book. The Radio Times article (it was recently Radio 4’s Book of the Week, a perfect choice for dry January) helpfully offers other books by ‘Women Seeking Solace.’ That’s annoying, lazy, sexist, I think; and yet, there’s something interesting buried in that unfortunate header.
As social media tightens around us – particularly in remote places (she describes sitting on a bucket with a roll up out in a muddy field trying to get a signal) – we become less adept at day to day interaction. Moments of extreme distress flashed up on Facebook are forgotten; the next post is a picture of a cat wearing a hat. What’s the answer? It’s not surprising; people don’t really change that much. The old Romantics had it right, poor dreamy doped up Coleridge, daffodil doited innocence-chasing Wordsworth, those creepy Brontes in their wuthering vicarage. Nature’s the balm.
With remarkable strength, and an honesty so naked it makes the reader worry for her, Liptrot uses nature to help regenerate. It’s not Wordsworth’s ‘inward eye’ she employs, there’s no ‘recollection in tranquillity’ here – it’s a muscular engagement with everything her island can offer. She’s ‘the Corncrake wife’ sent to count those rare birds. Her descriptions of these nightime forays, encounters with otters and stars, mark her out as a poet, yes, but more than that, an active poet. She grapples, with sea swimming – and the time she lost heart and just couldn’t go in (no self pity at all, in this book) – with scuba diving, with dyke-building, with punishing hikes over the tiny island of Papay in howling gales.
Why? The book’s construction is elegant. Each close encounter with the natural world is counterpointed by a glance back at the world of addiction and craving. She needs highs. Drink’s not an option, though it lurks always, just when she thinks she’s in control: ‘I suddenly thought how good a cold beer would be.’ Gradually she realises she’d been trying to replicate her father’s extreme elation – with drink, drugs, dancing, sex. Now she’s using the brute force and beauty of the Orkney winter to achieve the same feelings. We see into the closed world of AA, and her mistrust of her mother’s religion – but that leads again, to a fine interrogation of water as a renewing, shriving thing.
Most original of all, perhaps, is her engagement with the internet and GPS technology: ‘I feel omniscient, watching how global transport logistics dance and intersect, never crashing, like flocks of starlings.’ The simile is striking and typical; everything is connected to the land, even pixels. Desperate to be ‘in touch’, she ‘tidies up’ old internet aliases – ‘I used to spill my heart out on the internet like red wine’ – but feels bereft when her batteries run down. It’s a danger; a replacement for the obsession with drink. It ‘pulses unexpectedly, like the tremors on the farm ... I feel like a sheep on its back.’ So she turns it to her benefit. She begins to look at the stars. She tracks weather systems, anticipates space stations, identifies aeroplanes and Russian oil tankers. She takes us on a journey about learning new pathways.
It’s an astonishing debut, honest, beautifully written, hectically self absorbed, infused with meticulous observation. London is a place 'where suburban-bedroom fashion-magazine daydreams could come true’. But her relationship fails – ‘I’d caught around him like tights in the laundry’ – and she longs for home: ‘I wanted to reach up above the building, following the part of me that needed cliff.’ It’s not a happy ending – how could it be when the struggle’s never ending? – but an austere, rigorous one: ‘I crave either life in the inner city or to go to islands beyond islands … I want to have splendid success or to fail beautifully.’
Islands are tiny judgmental places; but those who live in them, year in year out, tholing bad harvests, gales that shift tethered kye and ring feeders and rocky shores, have an unspoken bond, which has to do with living right on the edge, in the extremes. We also are well acquainted with the props we use to get through offshore life. Amy Liptrot reminds us what it is to be on the rocky shore. There are seals and seaweeds and gannets, auroras and meteors, to help us get up in the dark mornings. The Outrun is a stunning debut.
Morag MacInnes is an Orcadian writer and lecturer.