Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was my choice for the June edition of the Chai and Sheep Book Club. I first found out about it after seeing a wonderful review, complete with sublime photographs of Orkney, on dovegreyreader’s blog. Olivia Laing, whose own work I am incidentally desperate to get to, calls it ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’.
The Outrun is a memoir of Amy Liptrot’s struggles with alcohol when she moves, first to Edinburgh as a student, and then to London: ‘At eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave… I wanted comfort, glamour and to be at the centre of things’. In The Outrun, Liptrot writes that essentially, relocating back to her home island rescues her. She ‘is drawn back to the Outrun on the sheep farm where she grew up. Approaching the land that was once home, memories of her childhood merge with the recent events that have set her on this journey’. She groups herself together with others she grew up with: ‘It’s a push and pull factor to many young people from the islands. We ended up back here again and again, washed back, like the inevitable tide’.
Geographically, Orkney is the collective name for a group of seventy islands, many of them uninhabited, to the north of Scotland. The whole area is ‘sea-scarred and wind-battered’. As one would expect, The Outrun is filled with fascinating details regarding the history of the islands; these have been wonderfully interspersed with Liptrot’s own memories. She details how paramount the weather is on such an exposed island group: ‘Sometimes the light picks out in fine detail the hills of Hoy, another island to the south beyond the headland, and on other days they disappear completely in the haar’. The Outrun itself is wonderfully evoked: ‘The Outrun is tucked away behind a low hill and beside the coast, and in the right spot you can’t see any houses or be seen from the road. Dad told me that when he was high, in a manic phase, he had slept out here.’
The prologue details Liptrot’s birth, and her father’s simultaneous relapse: ‘As I arrive into this island world, my father is taken outside of it. My birth, three weeks early, has brought on a manic episode’. As well as speaking about her present, Liptrot is, understandably, focused upon the past: ‘The rumblings of mental illness under my life were amplified by the presence of my mother’s extreme religion and by the landscape I was born into, the continual, perceptible crashing of the sea at the edges’. This memoir is an incredibly honest one; I felt as though Liptrot had a no-holds-barred approach to her past. She writes with such clarity, which really shows the hopelessness of her previous situation: ‘The alcohol I’d been pouring into myself for years was like the repeated action of the waves on the cliffs and it was beginning to cause physical damage. Something was crumbling deep within my nervous system and shook my body in powerful pulses to the extent that I was frozen and drooling, until they eased off enough for me to pour another drink or rejoin the party’.
The disparities between city and island life have been so well evoked: ‘Another Sunday muffled and hungover in bed, makeup oily in my eyes, doors slamming somewhere, while up north the waves still curled dark and endless, and the aurora lit up the sky’. Liptrot weaves this in with the panic mode which her drinking sends her into. Alcohol becomes a constant in her life rather quickly, and she begins to suffer from memory lapses and mood swings. She wakes with mysterious bruises all over her body; she is the victim of a crime. In London, she describes some rather scary episodes: ‘I was dumbfounded and unable to make decisions about where to go, whom to see or what opinion to hold, filling the void with alcohol and anxiety’. The London period is a gritty one for Liptrot, fraught with drugs, dependency and danger.
Aesthetically, this book is stunning, from its beautiful cover to its lovely illustrated maps. A glossary has been included too, which is incredibly beneficial for non-Orcadian speakers such as myself; it details spellbinding words and terms, such as ‘clapshot’ (mixed neeps and tatties), ‘haar’ (sea fog), and ‘grimlins’ (a midsummer night’s sky). Liptrot’s story has been so wonderfully – and often harrowingly – evoked that it will linger with the reader long after the final page has been read. The Outrun is a very honest and very well written memoir, which has made me want to travel to Orkney as soon as I possibly can – perhaps an inevitable consequence of reading it.