Monday 24 October 2016

Delicate, searing story of author's decline and rebirth

The Outrun, By Amy Liptrot, Canongate, €22.50

Frieda Klotz

Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30

Gone Girl: Amy Liptrot returned to her island home after hitting rock bottom. Photo: Lisa Swarna Khanna
Gone Girl: Amy Liptrot returned to her island home after hitting rock bottom. Photo: Lisa Swarna Khanna

The world doesn't want for memoirs about alcoholism and recovery. There is Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life or Augusten Burroughs's Dry or Koren Zailckas' Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, among many others. To make a dent in the over-saturated memoir-market, the writer's account of decline and rehabilitation must move beyond self-obsession; and the writing must be outstanding.

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The Outrun by Amy Liptrot charts the path of Liptrot's return to the family home in the Orkney Islands off Scotland's rough coasts after a decade in London where her life unravelled with increasing speed. Liptrot chased dreams and highs in London but also felt unwanted and alone, pushed out by the city's spiralling rents and a competitive job market. Excess drinking, which had been a habit since she first touched booze as a teenager, turned into a self-destructive lifestyle that gradually cut her off from friends, flatmates, her boyfriend and her job.

After hitting rock bottom Liptrot attended a publicly-funded 12-week treatment course in London and then went home to Orkney, intending to stay briefly. To her surprise, she found that being on the island offered a calming routine, more pleasant than the frenetic stress of London. It also gave her space to investigate and reinterpret the past, tracing the cracks in her family's and her own history.

The Outrun - the title refers to the largest field in the family's farm along the coast "where the grass is always short, pummelled by wind and sea spray year-round"- is a meditation on nature and place, an extensive study of the geology and ecology of Orkney, which Liptrot hews into a metaphor in an attempt to understand how she got where she was. The book is full of images and allegories. These could be of her own mind, as when she notes, "I'm repairing these dykes at the same time as I'm putting myself back together" or observes that, "on the farm we were always close to both birth and death." Or they may reflect the human experience, and the threats and fears we seek to evade. Staying the night in a lighthouse, she falls asleep and dreams "of warning systems: beacons, rockets, lighthouses, satellites and telescopes. I dream of the dangers and curiosities we try to predict, measure and bag, coming towards us on this small isle, over the sea, through the sky and across outer space."

In many ways The Outrun is a perfect story for our times, a reminder that living in the relative luxury of towns and cities as many of us do, there are things we have given up. From afar the city looks quite different-not an exciting source of adventure for the young and ambitious, but a bubble where similar people hang out, mirroring each other's interests and attitudes. Still, Liptrot remains a hipster child of her time, tweeting and using social media and Wikipedia and Google-mapping her treks around the islands. Technology connects her with her previous life. The internet is a friend in the middle of lonely nights and becomes almost a character in the book whose draw is, like that of alcohol, something addictive. "I take a step back from my blank-minded mouse-clicking and notice how, when my phone runs out of batteries, I can almost feel I don't exist, my walk no longer being tracked," she writes. "I'm aware of my addictive and obsessive tendencies."

Liptrot's prose is deceptively simple and direct. I was a little worried that passages about rocks and wave formations might become tedious but she steers the narrative, at just the right time jumping away to a memory or personal anecdote, or using the description as an image for something else. Her writing veers from the confessional of a journal to rhapsodic, poetic flights, as when she says of her night-time star-gazing, "I've swapped disco lights for celestial lights but I'm still surrounded by dancers. I am orbited by sixty-seven moons."

The clarity of style belies the book's sophistication, and literary references and allusions are quietly present throughout. Liptrot cites John Clare, Herman Melville, and David Foster Wallace, and tells us that as a teenager she loved not American rock and roll but also its literature. When she says; "I am one fathom deep and contain the unknown," there's an echo of Walt Whitman's poem Song of Myself and his words, "I contain multitudes."

The Outrun is still a sad (at times) book. Recovery is hard, the past full of regret, and the future fragile and uncertain. But by going home Liptrot has done what she meant to do when she left, possibly surpassing her wildest ambitions. Her delicate, thoughtful writing brings a new voice to contemporary literature and her story is searing enough to say things that are universal.

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