ON THE EDGES: Amy Liptrot’s ‘The Outrun’

Amy Liptrot The Outrun (Canongate, 2016)

by Kevin Addies

A memoir of addiction, relapse and renewal, to describe The Outrun merely as an affirming tale of perseverance in recovery does not do it justice. At times it can be disturbing, with frank accounts of drunken doings in London, brushes with the law and attempted sexual assault. It begins, after all, with Liptrot’s mother and father meeting on an airfield, her mother carrying her in her arms as her father is taken to the helicopter in a straitjacket, having been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Pigeonholing this book isn’t easy; it combines a journal of winds, stars, flora and fauna on mainland Orkney and Papa Westray with flashbacks from her past life descending into the darkest reaches of the big city. Her language in each case is bare, stripped-back and unflinching as befits both wind-battered Orkney and hard, cold London, rich in detail without retreating behind bold words and sentiment.

The outrun of the title is a field at the edge of the farmland around her family home on the Orkney mainland. Edges are important in this book; the extremes are where Liptrot feels she wants to be. In London, the Student Union bar and the city’s other distractions are just not wild enough. Walls just wait to be scaled in pursuit of an illicit midnight swim. In Orkney, meanwhile, attempting to figure out herself and where she wants to be, Liptrot spends summer nights driving across the islands in search of corncrakes. The winter is spent in Papa Westray, one of the furthest-flung islands of the archipelago, reading, walking, swimming and writing, thinking on the past and building for a future. The islands are not idealised. The insights Liptrot gains into herself have not come easy either. She follows the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous with scepticism of their inherent religiosity. She substitutes meditation for walking, and being in motion is a key motif; she cycles through the streets of London, drives on island roads blaring out happy hardcore and walks around Papa Westray on the winter solstice, seeking solutions and fulfillment in movement.

There is a deep sense of empathy and interdependence that shines through this book. Liptrot swims in the sea and becomes “part of the body of water making up all the oceans of the world, which moves, ebbing and flowing under and around me.” It is shown too in a more human way as she interacts with her fellow addicts in counselling, keeping in touch when the phone signal and the gales permit, as well as realising the effect of her worst days on her family and friends. For such a personal tale, largely taking place on a lonely island in the North Sea, it is filled with camaraderie and humanity. One feels acutely what it is to be on the edge of the world, right there on the outrun.

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