Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: January

7th January 2016

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Canongate, hardback, 304 pages. Out 14 January. Preorder a copy here.

Amy Liptrot’s memoir started life as a series of columns for Caught by the River. Emma Warren reviews it.

Somewhere near the start of The Outrun there’s a reference to the old Orcadian way of asking where you’re from: “where do you belong?”

It’s a question that blows through Amy Liptrot’s debut novel like the gale-force winds she grew up with on an exposed edge of Orkney, and one that follows her 800 miles south to Hackney in the mid 2000s where she rapidly drinks herself dry.

This is a nature book written by someone who wanted to escape all that. Why settle for the boredoms, repetition and everyday gore of farm life when London and internet offered bountiful chaos and endless opportunity?

On one level this is a memoir that uses Liptrot’s alcoholism to show how she reconnected slowly, painfully with the geographical area that Germans might call heimat or ‘homeland’. The writing about her alcohol days is grim and painfully honest and it really doesn’t sound like it was that much fun, bar a couple of transcendent lines when she describes being on the dancefloor at a warehouse party. “I was becoming more and more myself, white shoulders and red mouth flashing through the crowd, a plume of smoke hand-flicked and rising”.

On another, it’s a mirror held up to severe mental illness. The book opens with her English mother and father, both in wheelchairs, on the runway of Orkney’s small airport soon after arriving on the island to find new lives for themselves. One has the newborn author on her lap and is coming to say goodbye to the other, who is straitjacketed and being flown to a secure unit. It’s a striking, balletic, image that burrows deep below the subsequent pages.

It’s also a book about islands. As Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg says in The Fly Trap, ‘Islands are generalizations of a kind. Explanatory models. And where there are no islands we have to invent them’.

Liptrot finds islands everywhere. London is an island within the UK, defined and separate. She’s an island, pushing people away with alcohol-induced tectonic drift and then isolated, cut-off, the morning after. The islands of Orkney and Papay help her find herself, small and tight-knit enough to carry her through her new sobriety.

There is brilliant description: ewes in labour ‘arch their backs downward like plucked strings’ and in the chapter titled ‘The Corncrake Wife’, where she takes a job cataloguing all the calling male corncrakes on the island, she’s a ‘storm-crazed Ahab chasing an elusive bird’. There’s a fantastic section where she describes the games her mind plays in the mist. ‘I transpose the island boundaries onto a map of London. Papay is about half the area of Hackney but has just a hundred-thousandth of the population. In my dream state the central road becomes Mare Street, in each field springs a block of buildings… the screaming gulls become sirens and the sea is traffic.”

This mapping is layered throughout. Inner-city islands rest on Scottish archipelago; the Papay Walking Committee and the Orkney Polar Bears swimming club conduct the communal joy of dancefloors in new, local ways; the author locates herself through natural cycles like the Geminid meteor showers but also by mapping her walks with GPS. This is nature writing cut through with internet – Liptrot’s open laptop glows behind each page like so many open tabs.

You’re with her as she pulls herself fingertip by fingertip through recovery, describing the change from being ‘washed-up’ to appreciating that washed up can just mean storied and softened by life, like the curious items that arrive daily on the foreshore: headless porcelain figurines or a starfish dropped by a bird on a clifftop. And you’re with her towards the end of the book when she picks up a bottle of vodka on the beach with just a mouthful left in it – and chucks it back into the sea.

The Outrun is a trenchant, modernist siren song to belonging, where Herculean effort and close observation can root you as strongly as bloodlines.

Amy will be discussing ‘The Outrun’ with Emma at our next Bush Hall event on Sunday 28 February. More info here.

Emma Warren on Caught by the River

Amy Liptrot on Caught by the River