The largest of the fields, the ‘Outrun’, is a stretch of coastland at the top of the farm where the grass is always short, pummelled by wind and sea spray tear-round. The Outrun is where the ewes and their lambs graze in summer after they are taken up from the nursery fields. It where the Highland cattle overwinter, red and horned, running out under the huge sky.”
So begins The Outrun, Amy Liptrot’s ‘sobering’ (forgive the pun, you may groan) memoir cataloguing her alcoholism and difficult road to sobriety. It’s a story of redemption and recovery told in two landscapes: one being London, the other the desolate lands of the Orkney Islands. It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that it is not Orkney, the distant northern land stripped of trees and people, where the sense of isolation is greatest.
Liptrot grew up on Orkney, her parents having moved there before she was born, and the story starts with her birth coinciding with her father being taken to a mental healthcare institution. Her father suffered from bipolar disorder and whilst Liptrot doesn’t make a huge deal of her father’s condition, the question hangs over the book as to whether there’s a link between her father’s mental health issues and her descent into drinking. Her stories of her childhood are idyllic enough (as idyllic as childhood stories ever are, tempered by forgetfulness), and her problems really start once she moves to London seeking excitement and employment, expecting the start of a joyful and productive life. She meets someone, falls in love. They move in together. Then gradually everything is destroyed by her drinking. She loses her job, her boyfriend. She moves through a succession of increasingly depressing and small apartments, facing rejection everywhere. Her behaviour is uncontrollable, she is caught in a cycle of drinking, chaos and regret. She’s arrested for drink driving and then attacked by a man whose car she got into whilst drunk. At this point she realises, as she has before but perhaps less successfully, that something needs to be done. She gets herself into rehab and begins the long, slow struggle towards a sober life.
One thing which is notable about The Outrun is how everything happens so slowly and gradually. That’s not to say it’s a slow book (it’s not) but that Liptrot manages to capture the way in which her alcohol problem crept up on her, the small steps which moved from sociable drinking to a serious problem. She neither glamorises nor excuses her drink problem, the way it made her behave and the affect it had on her life and friendships. Similarly her route to recovery was equally slow, and equally painful and there’s a sense that though she is writing about her experiences now as a recovered alcoholic, she never sees herself as being out of danger. Many times she talks about the temptation to take just one sip, one glass of alcohol. As she describes here:
“The devilish thoughts flickered. I worried that my life was over and I’d never have fun again. I thought that if I wasn’t going to amount to anything I might as well drink. I wanted a glass of champagne on a pavement outside an art gallery opening with good-looking fashionable people, maybe one of whom would take me home if we got drunk enough. I wanted cocaine. I missed the moment where inhibitions gave ways, and my heart ached for that brief enlivenment. I had purposefully put barriers between myself and alcohol but was finding it hard to be restrained.”
The sense of guilt and self-loathing, the embarrassment at how she behaved whilst drunk is quite raw throughout the book. There’s no sugar coating here, but neither is it showy or brushed over. Liptrot walks a fine line between showing the reality of her alcoholism and supporting herself through recovery. There’s a sense that she still feels guilty and as though she had failed, that her life did not turn out to be the life-long party she’d hoped for. Yet you can also sense her holding her self-esteem like a freshly laid egg in her hands; the recognition that if she is going to stay clean and sober she needs to forgive and cherish herself, to find in her life some reason to live.
“I’ve been fighting to avoid falling into the depression that is apparently common in the first year of sobriety, missing some of the chaos and unpredictability of my old life. There are many things I am scared may happen by surrendering myself to sobriety but near the top of the list is losing my edge. By ‘edge’ I mean my cool, by which I mean my enlivening sense of discontent, and my youth, and sex – narrowed eyes and full lips – and enjoyment of testing the boundaries, of saying something uncomfortable and an excitement in the unexpected.”
Returning home to Orkney is it, though at first she didn’t recognise it as this. Sensing her failure, her inability to stay in London both financially and personally, Liptrot returns home. This journey makes for an interesting contrast: a recognition that London was not what she had hoped it would be, and that in Orkney she had everything she needed to rebuild her life. She forgave, to a degree, her parents for their rocky marriage and their own extremes (her fathers bipolar disorder, her mother’s extreme religious beliefs) and started to look for something more meaningful in her daily life. Her love of Orkney, how it grows over the course of her recovery, is quite palpable and the book is part a description of the small joys of her environment and the frustration she feels at the daily difficulty of holding back from taking a drink. But she discovers in Orkney a mystical history – stories of the mythical island Hether Blether and the age-old community at Skara Brae – a connection with nature that creeps up on her, and a diverse community even if it’s a small one. She learns to recognise the corncrake, search the sea shores for treasures returned from the sea (including her own meals), to swim in the freezing ocean and recognise the different types of winds and the stars. She develops new obsessions, addictions: the internet, birdwatching, the shock of a freezing swim, the stars, cataloguing her life digitally. Yet these obsessions are recognised and non-destructive and they help her on her path to recovery.
“But tonight I’m wild on Northern Lights. I’m following a different obsession. When I visited Tom in Manchester, I walked past busy bars but didn’t glance inside because I was looking up for meteors. Now, on Papay, I’ve gone to the Muckle Supper, first footing, and even done a little dancing. I’m feeling strong enough to stay out late.”
She never shakes the feeling that she is one step away from a fall, but as the story continues you can see her growing stronger, finding different ways of replacing that buzz she got from alcohol without the soul-sapping horrors of hangover and memory the next day. There’s no conclusion, except perhaps that a recovering alcoholic is always going to be that, but there is redemption and hope and a recognition that the slow life has its own rewards. As she describes so beautifully here:
“There are more solar storms forecast over the coming weeks and I will go out – maybe even after midnight – just before bed and look up, turning off my screen light, throwing away my torch, and walking north into the glow. Maybe things are not going to be so bad. I’ve swapped disco lights for celestial lights but I’m still surrounded by dancers. I am orbited by sixty-seven moons.”
I recognise that as I’ve written of this book, unwittingly, I have written a lot about the ways in which it juxtaposes or offsets two seemingly opposing concepts and yet this is something I strongly felt about the book. There was alcoholism and sobriety, Orkney and London, recovery and temptation. Conceptually it feels like it shouldn’t work, like it should feel like a book in two halves, yet it doesn’t. Liptrot manages to weave her story beautifully, like a hand-knitted Fair Isle jumper (which is nearby and features in the book, before you trash my happy metaphor) weaving the disparate strands together. It reminded me in some ways of Helen MacDonald’s wonderful H Is For Hawk, and this book is also wonderful. Yet I can’t help feeling sad that Liptrot had to experience such difficulties in order to have a story to tell and share. At the same time I’m glad she did (awful as that sounds). It is a soul-stirring read, filled with desolation and yet with tremulous beauty. I hope Liptrot is able to stay on her path, that she continues to discover life’s sober wonders and continues to share them with her readers.
The Outrun is published by, you guessed it, Canongate Books.