Reviewed by Phoebe Harper
Despondently filing through the woefully under-stocked shelves of my local library, my fingers come across the laminated cover of ‘The Outrun’, by Amy Liptrot. Opening the front page, two thoughts cross my mind. One; this cover is really going to revolutionise reading in the bath, and two; if the multitude of date stamps jostling for space on the crumpled ‘Suffolk Libraries’ label are anything to go by, then this is clearly a very popular book. After skimming the blurb, I am instantly enticed by the story of a free-spirited young woman abandoning the city for nature, and overcoming addiction against the evocative backdrop of the Orkney archipelago. Feeling as if I have struck gold, I rapidly retreat home in November rain and wonder how the hell I missed this book in the first place…
‘The Outrun’ reads rather like a beautifully eloquent and prosaic map, chartering the author’s own life and surroundings thus far whilst navigating difficult topics such as alcoholism, mental illness, isolation, extreme religion and questions of identity. In spite of the intimate subject matter, Liptrot makes no qualms about wholeheartedly inviting the reader into her world, laying herself bare as openly and plainly as the hand drawn plan of the Orkney Islands that graces the front pages.
Life for Liptrot begins on her parents’ remote working sheep farm, where rural living can be harsh and the family must endure the difficulties that come with their father’s recurring bouts of mania. Years later, before returning to Orkney and developing a burgeoning interest in the island’s birdlife, we follow Liptrot herself as she makes her own migration south, lured by the pulse of the Big Smoke. It is here in the depths of London’s East end that Liptrot falls foul of the pitfalls of hedonistic city living. The demon of alcoholism soon rears its nasty head and its loyal disciples of heartache, unemployment and embarrassment follow suit in the form of a traumatic breakup, outlandish booze-fuelled behaviour and a string of failed temp jobs. This downward spiral reaches its ugly climax when Liptrot is physically assaulted by a stranger at the end of a night out.
In the bedsits of Hackney, it is the sound of the sea that Liptrot hears bouncing off the walls. Eventually, as the call to return to her islands becomes increasingly deafening and with her willpower rekindled after a series of AA classes, Liptrot returns to Orkney in aid of her recovery and throws herself fully into island living. Escaping to a place where nature reigns in its purest and often brutal elemental form, Liptrot distracts herself from wading through the seemingly inescapable mire of addiction and attempts to heal. What is most striking in her account of this difficult period is the way that she transposes her ‘personal geology’, both physical and internal, to the untamed landscapes surrounding her. The two forces of world and woman are portrayed as intimately related, often mirroring each other. Just like the wild environment that she calls home, Liptrot is an island herself, alone and battling the storms of alcoholism whilst experiencing the very real consequences of living in a habitat that is ultimately at the mercy of the ever-changing Atlantic Ocean. Just like the mysterious and almighty Atlantic herself, Liptrot introspectively concludes, “I am one fathom deep and contain the Unknown.” Spending several months in an abandoned farmhouse on the remote, wind-battered shores of Papay Westray, the idea of surviving the winter is far more of a doubt than a certainty.
All aspects of how Liptrot lives her life encapsulate a kind of transcendental, primordial energy; from dancing naked around Neolithic stone circles to braving the Arctic embrace of the sea every morning with the Orkney Polar Bear swimming club. The idea of a woman finding a sense of self and freedom amongst the elements is a fairly well versed theme throughout literature, but Liptrot embodies this wild and free-spirited way of life with a uniquely modern twist, seamlessly marrying the ancient and natural with current technology. Rather than ‘switching off’, as you perhaps might suspect, Liptrot embraces technology in all its forms, whether its blasting rap music through her headphones during the hardy trials of lambing season or riding around the islands like ‘a 21st century heathen’ on the back of a BMX. This modern energy finds its ultimate expression as Liptrot admits that out of all environments, it is the Internet where she finds her real home. After pin balling between vastly contrasting locations, and expressing feelings of displacement in both, it is perhaps not surprising that it is this intangible phenomenon that offers a sense of belonging. Under this invisible, all-encompassing blanket whose reaches extend to even wildest nature, the individual is free to create and perpetuate their chosen identity, shedding whatever elements they may choose to leave by the wayside.
This idea translates to the space of ‘the Outrun’ itself. A patch of uncultivated pasture bordering the cliffs on her parents farm, this liminal space caught somewhere between land and sea serves as a powerful metaphor for Liptrot, living in a transitional and ever-evolving state of being, never entirely rooted to one realm. Throughout, Liptrot writes with a masterful prose that packs a force like the wing of a seabird, cutting straight to the core with its tender and striking simplicity. From the fabric of life and all the twists, turns and traumas that it can bring, Liptrot has created a story of true beauty that is an ample companion for any lost soul. Dark skies will draw in and there are always storms to be weathered, but Liptrot reminds us that whether internal or external, all weather is temporary and you cannot help but rejoice with her as the clouds start to break.
Phoebe Harper works in the travel industry. When unleashed from the office, she can be found with her nose in the spine of a new book or plotting her aspiring future career as a travel writer. She is at her happiest with a brand new Moleskine and a Lamy fountain pen in front of her (preferably with an espresso on the side). Find her on Instagram @harperphoebe.