Back at the end of the old year I received a sneaky proof copy of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. I love getting my paws on proof copies (I have three to date) with their banner forbidding resale, knowing that I’m one of only a handful of people who get to see a book this new. It’s a bit like seeing my god-daughter when she was only a few weeks old, or another friend’s baby at two days’ newly hatched, before anyone else has told me about what they are like and I can find out for myself entirely.
But now the book is out in the world and so I can talk about it. On paper it sounds like a bit of a misery memoir: girl comes back home to Orkney follow stint in rehab for alcoholism, trying to heal herself through writing and being close to nature. But Liptrot’s story is anything but miserable: she finds that her life is full of resonances that for years she was too busy to hear, but now echo to her from unexpected corners and reverberate through her new self. If this sounds rather dippy-hippy and saccharine, Liptrot’s writing isn’t that either, it’s bright and clear and incisive, like the clean blade of a knife. There’s an inherent danger to her story too. It is the tale of one living closer to the edge of the normal world than might be safe or comfortable.
The story begins when she meets her parents for the first time. Her father’s manic depression shapes the family’s life with its violence: he smashes windows, believes he can control the weather, and is periodically sectioned, as he is on the day Amy arrives into this world three weeks earlier than anticipated. The opening chapter describes the scene acted out beneath the whirring blades of an Orkney helicopter, a baby cradled in her mother’s arms in one wheelchair as her straight-jacketed father is brought out in another on his way to a mainland asylum. Liptrot’s prose gives nothing away and it is only in the closing words of the chapter that we realise that the two wheelchair-bound adults are her own parents, and this is the first of many dramatic and extreme events in her life.
As a teenager Liptrot longs to get away from something she sees falsely described as an island paradise, and in her 20s she moves to London. The city’s ‘hot pulse’ seems so far away from Orkney’s windswept emptiness that the two places feel like polar opposites: for the first half of the book the two appear in defiant contrast to each other. Liptrot goes clubbing several times a week, drinking heavily and ‘searching headlong for a good time’. But after Liptrot has reached her nadir, gone to rehab and returned to Orkney, similarities between the two creep into Liptrot’s writing. The noise of the waves crashing into the island reminds her of the roar of London’s traffic; the sea’s luminescence is like the neon of a night club. Her two worlds are deeply intertwined and represent not the two extremes of living that she thought they did, but different ways of engaging with the same reality.
The book’s title comes from an Orcadian field name, the outrun being the largest field at the top of farm where the ewes and their lambs graze in summer and where the Highland cattle overwinter. But to ‘out run’ something means to race away from it, to reach a safe place by being fleeter of foot than one’s pursuer. And there is a chase at the heart of the book, but perhaps not the one you’d expect.
The narratives of chased and chasing are familiar to me from another autobiography of alcoholism and depression, Gwyneth Lewis’ Sunbathing in the Rain. Both describe the out-of-control searching for something at the bottom of a bottle, the desperate efforts to escape from or to a place by being the drunken sailor on a tipsy ocean. But where as Lewis’ drinking is an attempt to outrun her own depression (and her mother’s), Liptrot’s seems to be an attempt to catch up with the violent mood swings of her father, to mimic the highest highs and terrible lows that shaped her childhood. She’s almost drinking to outrun him, not herself, to go higher and faster and giddier with each bottle.
I completely understand this drinking and behaving recklessly to make your moods match what you think they should be. Like Lewis and Liptrot, I too had a period of mental illness in my twenties – I was sectioned in a Japanese psychiatric hospital when I was 22, spending weeks living in the men’s ward there because the women’s ward was full. I couldn’t be trusted to fly back to Britain alone, but I wasn’t safe enough to look after myself. When I got home my parents were kind and concerned, encouraging me to visit old friends and work in small easy jobs like gardening. But for months I felt worse instead of better, drawn to the edge of station platforms and feeling like an enormous hole had opened up where my heart had once been. I couldn’t understand what I’d done to make me feel so bad, and so I tried to give myself reasons for feeling awful, so that there was some understandable correlation between my extreme emotions and my reality. I smashed up my mother’s bedroom, stole money from my parents, ran away from a kind friend’s family who offered to let me live with them in London whilst I did a journalism course, and stayed in hotels knowing that I had no money to pay for the room, leaving early before the receptionist took up her guard post by the front door. I would disappear overnight, travelling without train tickets to places I had no wish to go. After a few months of this, I felt like I had enough reasons to feel justifiably awful, and agreed to go to see a psychotherapist to talk about what had happened. It was only then that my life started to swim back into focus, and my feelings started to line up more closely with what was really happening to me.
In Lewis’ words, which I read obsessively during my own rehabilitation, I was ‘coming back to my senses’. This realisation that sanity lies close to one’s physical senses is shared with Liptrot, and I loved hearing about how her new sober world expanded beneath her finger tips, under her toes when she swims in the sea, above her ears and her eyes as the birds and the weather freewheel above her. She becomes fiercely observing of the natural world, working for the RSPB counting corncrakes and inhabiting a tiny pink cottage on the even remoter island of Papa Westray during the winter. Her senses are sharp and raw, but she can trust them, and she uses them to inch herself to her life. Her writing seems like an extension of those sensory experiences: natural, fascinating, and utterly keen.
Want to hear another opinion? Try Cathy Rentzenbrink over at The Pool, the Guardian’s review by Katharine Norbury, and the Scotman’s by Stuart Kelly. If you can’t get your hands on a copy of the book, you can listen to it being read by Tracy Wiles on BBC 4 Extra until the end of February. As well as reading the book, on 2nd February I’m going to hear Liptrot read from and talk about her book at Waterstone’s on Edinburgh’s Princes Street – she’s doing a tour up and down the country, so why not try and catch her if you can?