Book Review: “The Outrun” by Amy Liptrot

Blurb & Info

When Amy Liptrot returns to Orkney after more than a decade away, 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.

Amy was shaped by the cycle of the seasons, birth and death on the farm, and her father’s mental illness, which were as much a part of her childhood as the wild, carefree existence on Orkney. But as she grew up, she longed to leave this remote life. She moved to London and found herself in a hedonistic cycle. Unable to control her drinking, alcohol gradually took over. Now thirty, she finds herself washed up back home on Orkney, standing unstable at the cliff edge, trying to come to terms with what happened to her in London.

Spending early mornings swimming in the bracingly cold sea, the days tracking Orkney’s wildlife — puffins nesting on sea stacks, arctic terns swooping close enough to feel their wings — and nights searching the sky for the Merry Dancers, Amy slowly makes the journey toward recovery from addiction.

First Published: December 31, 2015

Publisher: Canongate Books

Series: standalone

Pages: 280

Content Warnings: alcoholism, drug abuse and addiction, discussion of a parent having severe mental illness, animal death, brief mention of racism, suicide of an extremely minor character

Review

Orkney is a collection of islands off the western coast of Scotland, many of which are now uninhabited. The climate of the islands is (relatively) temperate thanks to the warm waters brought by the Gulf Stream, but the wind and waves of the northern Atlantic Ocean are unrelenting, battering the islands and their people without mercy. In some ways, I felt like this book was battering me.

Liptrot’s memoir feels refined yet also raw at the same time, if that’s even possible. Lush prose is devoted to the minutiae of Orkney’s natural beauty — its crying seabirds, the small, precious flowers that survive both the harsh weather and the grazing sheep, the clearness of the night sky — and so it feels like a slap in the face when Liptrot savagely yanks back the beautiful curtain she has hung for us to reveal the realities of her life on the islands: a collie pup that tumbled off the edge of a cliff while chasing a rabbit, never to be seen again, or an ewe that trampled her newborn lambs to death. No detail is spared; short of physically going to Orkney, this is as vivid of an experience of the islands as you’re going to get.

Her life in London is similarly described. If you wanted insight into the life of a downward-spiraling alcoholic, you can find it here. Liptrot doesn’t paint herself as a victim to her impulses, or as a villain. Her behavior is sometimes pathetic, sometimes pitiful, and sometimes even despicable, but it’s all laid bare for the reader. I really enjoyed all of the discussion that Liptrot raises about how addiction is treated by the government in the UK and by the larger world; her recovery was made possible by a special program that is now threatened by austerity cuts, and she later followed Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Step Program even though she wasn’t a fan of its spirituality. Liptrot mentions that, in addition to the 12 Step Program, there is another addiction recovery tool called SMART Recovery that uses techniques derived primarily from cognitive behavioral therapy.

Liptrot believes that she was and is especially vulnerable to addiction because of her genetic link to her father, who has bipolar disorder. Her father was never abusive, but he was undoubtedly unstable — there is a flashback to Liptrot’s childhood where he walked around the farmhouse in Orkney, smashing all of the windows, before he could be restrained. All too often, mentally ill parents (both in fiction and reality) are classed as incompetent at best, and dangerous to their loved ones at worst. Liptrot’s father wasn’t always there for her, and she acknowledges that he wasn’t able to be the best parent for her or her brother, but he is never made into a villain for his mental illness.

When Liptrot returns to Orkney as a newly-sober adult, she finds direction and comfort in the natural world, searching for endangered ground-nesting birds for the RSPB and spending a winter in an un-insulated cottage on an Orcadian island with fewer than 100 other people. She joins a club of avid sea swimmers who have dubbed themselves “polar bears” for enduring the freezing water of the northern Atlantic, watches the stars and clouds, and finds beauty in every place. She makes real friends for the first time since leaving for London and painstakingly rebuilds her life.

There is more to this book than what I’ve said here. The Outrun is narrated in the first person and reads like a diary as Liptrot describes her past, as well as muses on her actions and their consequences. Dialogue is scant; Liptrot’s focus is turned inward even as she looks outward, trying to find a reflection of herself in the movement of the wind and tides and the streamers of the Merry Dancers (northern lights).

I don’t always assign star ratings to nonfiction, so I hope this description of the book has helped you decide whether you might like to read it. I can’t say “I would recommend this book to everyone” because I think it is rather niche and just wouldn’t appeal to every single person. You will very much like this book if you’re looking for medium-to-low action, high philosophy, gorgeously descriptive nature writing. You will not like this book if you dislike those things. Speaking as someone who isn’t normally drawn to this type of book, I found it beautiful to read but difficult to stick with because of some of the harder-hitting topics that Liptrot brings up, but ultimately enjoyed it.

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