The Outrun is a memoir of addiction and recovery - and admittedly an apparently odd choice for a ‘countryside read’. But this is no ordinary AA story, and the Orkney Islands are key to both the author’s descriptions of addiction - living on the edge, literally and figuratively, facing a raging storm - and of recovery - finding, with relief, peace, silence, plus a new-found obsession with concrakes and a rekindled love of astronomy
We’re often ambivalent about the place we grow up, and Amy Liptrot is no different. Although she was born on Orkney, her parents were incomers from Manchester - and, in a place where ‘English’ is hurled as an insult, she recalls always feeling unsettled, displaced. She spends some of the book raking over the reasons why she ended up an addict - perhaps it was genetic - her father was sectioned shortly after she was born - or maybe her ‘outsider’ status pushed her further and further to the edge. Or perhaps it was simply in her nature, and alcoholism and mental instability were as inevitable as the changing of the seasons.
After years of complaining of boredom and mocking the tourists who gush over Orkney as an “island paradise”, Liptrot leaves and heads for bright lights. London - where else? And slowly but surely, year after year, a problem that began with booze and magic mushrooms as a teenager back on Orkney develops into a slavish, self-destructive compulsion for drink and drugs. Losing friends, flats and boyfriends along the way, she spirals into despair and danger, with several chilling incidents where her lowered inhibitions get her into trouble. Something, finally, has to change.
Even in London, in rehab, Orkney is never far away from Liptrot’s mind. The smell of the addiction clinic is the “same sour odour that had filled my London bedrooms, the smell from an ill sheep you’re going to have to spray with a red X and send to the mart.” Getting sober, it seems, is a messy business, both physically and emotionally. In order to get some perspective and clarity (and, you know, maybe a rented room “where I could cut myself off and just drink” if this new sober life proved unbearable), she relents to her mother’s pleading, packs a bag and returns to island life.
And so we accompany Liptrot back to Orkney, to extremes, to wild weather, trembling walls, wind and hail crashing against the windows. But she also finds and experiences things she hasn’t seen before: porpoises, uninhabited islands and the strange beauty and the oxymoronic intimate isolation of a remote life. As a teenager, all she wanted was excitement, illicit wine, drugs and raves, but in her sobriety she discovers the natural high that comes from sea-swimming, from tracking Orkney’s puffins and terns, from having a conversation with someone that isn’t oiled with half a bottle of spirits.
Her writing about Orkney - the island, its landscape, its wildlife - is the most beautiful in the whole book - astonishingly, sharp-intake-of-breath-beautiful at times. And although Liptrot says she wants to resist becoming “the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type” she can’t deny the moments “that thrill and glow: the few seconds a male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.” Maybe this is what happens, she muses: “I’ve given up drugs, don’t believe in God and love has gone wrong, so now I find my happiness and flight in the world around me.”
An astonishing, unflinching, brave and compelling book - and utterly inspiring to boot.