Caught by the River

The Instant

Nell Frizzell | 4th March 2022

Amy Liptrot’s second book, chronicling a year’s worth of love, heartbreak, raccoons and moons in Berlin, was published yesterday by Canongate. It is magical and sexy and puncturing, writes Nell Frizzell, and we simply cannot wait another seven years for more.

The Instant opens with Amy Liptrot looking at the moon. With a brevity and contemporary gaze that makes her writing so instantly recognisable, she lies in a bath, tracing the moon’s orbit across digital maps, reading her phone for celestial data, alone in a tub-shaped island of water. She recites the names of the full moons, describes the tiny plastic crescent she found in a former airfield, locates the moon on an app 384,012 miles from her hand and stares up into the sky from a Kreutzberg apartment. Effortlessly, she brings together the natural world, digital technology, personal recollection and poetry. The moon, she writes, is her boyfriend.

And yet, the moon is not the only thing she is due to fall in love with during the course of this slim, poignant book. Nor the only thing she quests to find. 

The urban setting is perhaps surprising for fans of The Outrun; Liptrot’s first book that largely took place on a salt-blown island in The Hebrides. But Berlin has always been a city for exiles. In the 1600s, Huguenots fled there from France, writers from Britain and Europe swung into town during the 1920s Weimar Republic, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea have sought safety in the city over the last decade. Today, when London achieves the twin functions of being both grotty and unaffordable, Berlin has once become a place for creative young Britons to flee. We go in search of cheap rent, tall-ceilinged apartments, a sense of history and exciting nights. Liptrot went there to try and outrun loneliness. In my early thirties, newly in love and not quite out of my panic years, I went there to have an adventure. I gave myself three months; she lasted a year. We would both swim in lakes, go to markets, look for work and stare out of tall windows at the S-Bahn tracks and huge linden trees. Amy Liptrot found a job in a tea factory, fell in love, watched goshawks, hunted for racoons and, three quarters of the way through this tantalising book, had that love ripped unexpectedly away from her. I arrived just as Liptrot had left. Our only crossover — a cup of tea and plate of biscuits in my rented apartment — happened when she came back to visit the city and the man she’d left behind.

The Instant is a book so full of blazing moments, thrown away gravitas, tiny speckled detail that at times I longed for more. When Liptrot measures out her year by having ‘filled another book with handwriting,’ I wanted to read it. We are invited into glimpses of such heady honesty — having her breasts drawn around in felt tip pen at a training hospital for reconstructive plastic surgery; getting her period during a hazy, dirty camping trip with a new lover; walking back through the city in the early hours with the taste of cigarettes and sex in her mouth — but strangely the effect is to leave the reader wanting everything. Like zooming in on the body and bedroom of an Instagram photo, we want to forensically plot through her life as she travels from London to Berlin to Orkney to Scotland. 

With a spider silk lightness of touch, she discusses the politics of migration, of nations, borders and climate change. I was left wanting to dive in fully; wanted more of her, despite the huge breadth of material she offers up for public consumption. When she discusses the population boom of greylag geese in the northern islands or the twin populations of racoons travelling across Germany to meet in the urban environment of Berlin, we are educated not just in natural history but cultural history, migratory history, the way people leave their mark on a place and the place on its population. I wanted to hear more of what she thinks, her political stance, the actions she takes as a philosophical, feeling woman in the modern world.

The book also contains one of my favourite ever pieces of Liptrot’s writing, first published online by Somesuch Stories. In the chaper, called Diving Into Berghain, she dances in the legendary Berlin techno nightclub, transforming this landlocked cathedral to electronic music, sexual tolerance and sweaty clothes into an ocean. The space becomes a huge echoing cliff cave, the inhabitants transformed into rock doves and black cormorants, the topless dancers like jellyfish and anemones, ‘beautiful and weird.’ It is magical, it is sexy, it is redolent of the natural world and it is all the things that makes Liptrot one of the most unique voices writing today.

Perhaps the part of the book that punctured me most acutely, and that gives the text such momentum, is the doomed love affair with a man who she cannot hold. A man who disappears as swiftly, and as electrically, as he entered it. A man who commits — to me — the most cardinal of sins; whispering of love and babies into the ear of a 34-year-old woman before severing the relationship without warning and via an email. In her raw state of heartbreak, which is traced across social media profiles, internet searches, with all the tenacity and hunger with which she has previously scrolled across digital maps of her home island, we are almost blinded by her vulnerability. I longed to subdue her panic, to weigh her back down, to soothe. I know an incarnation of her pain and I was provoked by her account into fear and pity; the hallmarks of tragedy.

And yet, this is not a tragic book. Not just because it ends with her sleeping in a van, shared with her partner and baby, watching a Cold Moon on the first morning of the year in the snowy north of England. But because, as she puts it, the pain she experiences earlier in the text is proof of her. Proof of her strength, her resilience and her openness. She writes: ‘Berlin broke my heart but I’m glad that I was able to let it in.’

The tragedy, for me as a reader, is that with this book taking seven years to arrive, we simply cannot get enough Liptrot in our lifetimes. I want her to write a book every year. I want to witness her childbirths, see her meals, explore the prosaic as well as profound corners of her life. The Instant is brilliant and beautiful and spare but it has left me hungry for more of her. For more of her reflected light. So please, Amy, can we have some more?


‘The Instant’ is out now and available here (£13.94).

Nell Frizzell is the author of ‘The Panic Years’, which has just been published in paperback.