A seamless combination of personal memoir and nature writing, The Outrun follows author Amy Liptrot as she finds herself returning north to her native Orkney, following years of rebellion and alcoholism, culminating in a devastating downward spiral in London.
The Outrun is a powerfully sensorial work, personifying the Scottish archipelago and its landscape. Liptrot’s use of metaphor to illustrate her internal conflict and life’s trajectory is beautifully simple, and further embeds her identity within Orkney and its surrounding waters. The parallels she finds between herself and the sea enrich the Isle’s character and place within her story, presenting a vibrant wholesomeness that Liptrot has repeatedly tried to find within herself.
There is a quaint authenticity offered through this memoir. The vulnerability her struggle with alcoholism exposes, along with the anxiety fostered by her fear of rejection and not belonging somewhere, induces endless empathy. Melodrama has no place within The Outrun; Liptrot’s continuous failures and descent into addiction is explained so nonchalantly that it is easy for it to get lost in the chaos of city life, which she experiences.
In the novel’s opening, as she describes the Orcadian landscape, the presence of a darker, unnatural element to her story is subtly inserted amongst the descriptions of the windswept isle. It is this restraint that Liptrot possesses (both in her writing and day-to-day life) that is what is so captivating to the reader. The desire to know more, about both Liptrot and Orkney’s landscape and history, never falters.
Despite London’s toxicity and damaging effect on her mental wellbeing, Liptrot’s relationship with Orkney continues to be a complex one. There is an ambivalence presented that anyone from a small town lacking freedom and possibilities can relate to. While her remark, “Orkney keeps holding onto me”, is meant to have a negative connotation, Liptrot’s way of writing betrays this negative outlook of her home island. Her undisputed fascination of the Orcadian terrain, its communities and folklore reveal an unbreakable, innate connection between the small isle and its tortured inhabitant. This is only strengthened through her use of local expressions, helpfully explained in the glossary and effortlessly incorporated.
As paradoxical as her attachment to Orkney may seem, the healing effects of rural life is what transforms the Northern Isles into a sanctuary for the troubled writer. The power of nature and rural communities strongly contrasts the numbness evoked by the anonymity of city life, which in part leads to Liptrot self-medicating with alcohol.
Although there is a tentativeness to rediscover the lifestyle she out-rightly rebelled against as a teenager, Liptrot gradually reconnects with her rural heritage. The alienation she fears proves to be self-inflicted, and over time she finds herself a treasured part of the community (with a third of cabbage symbolising this acceptance that she has long craved for.)
As the memoir comes to the end, with Liptrot reaching two years of sobriety, the outlook that she has for life and her home is inspiring. There is no dramatic finish because her life is till on going; the years documented merely a season in life’s greater cycle.
Some irony can be found in the fact that The Outrun won The Wainwright Golden Beer Prize (yes, a competition sponsored by alcohol.) Nevertheless, it’s another triumph for Liptrot over her addiction. Her exemplary piece of nature writing will undoubtedly aid the genre’s return to literary discussion, and well as mesmerise readers into wanting to experience Orkney and the Isles for themselves.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate, 2016)
Photo credit: Chmee2