It’s worth emphasising as an aside that Twitter’s a great place to get reading material that you really like. With so many authors on there, you can follow whichever writers you wish, find out what they’re like and what makes them tick, and even interact with them. If you don’t like them, then you can unfollow. The ones you stay following will be the ones whose updates and perspectives on the world you enjoy and who make you think about things, places and ideas, whose writing you suspect you’d want to read at greater length.
Then, when they start to plug their new book you already have a good idea of whether it’s something that would appeal to you or not. It’s an inefficient form of shelf-browsing, but in a way a much more enjoyable and immersive one: not only do you get a good book out of the author that you can safely bet will be up your street, but you’ll have enjoyed that 140-character-shaped insight into their life over the past however long.
And so it was with Orkney writer Amy Liptrot. I can’t quite remember how I stumbled across her, but her tweets have reflected the subject of her debut book, The Outrun, a memoir that charts her time in Orkney and London against the backdrop of a battle against alcoholism.
But to leave the summary of the book at that rather sells the book short – this isn’t simply the diary of an addict. I’m not sure that sort of book would be up my street. It’s also an insight into Amy’s wider life, her interests, her journey to find a place in the world and a contented sense of self, and a portrait of the two locations which shape the book.
Having grown up and lived for many years in Orkney but also having spent considerable time in London, the narrative in The Outrun flits between the two places with surprising ease. Though they are obviously very different places, the windswept island group and the bustling city shadow each others’ scenes, haunt them, perhaps, as Amy describes each place often in the context of the other. Her narrative and recall flit effortlessly from a busy street or a thumping nightclub to an open field or a starlit sky. As she steers this course, a sense emerged for me of the two places actually being more similar than they might seem – both wild, in their own ways; both impenetrable to a newcomer with the wrong mindset; both incredibly diverse; both with their curiosities, temptations and mysteries; and both requiring work and chance to tease out a sense of community.
And it is the characters of Orkney and London – playing off each other, becoming yin and yang to each other, that is one of the book’s most interesting and colourful aspects. Both leave their make on the author, both pull her and shape her. She appears to identify with them both and choose neither absolutely.
That’s not to downplay the more obvious storyline, that of her continuing journey to discover herself, rebuild her life and beat the bottle. She writes with searing honesty about her downfalls, her flaws, her vices and her exhausting battle, but optimistically and positively too. She finds great solace, not least in the latter chapters, in isolation and contemplation in some of Orkney’s more sparsely populated places, developing friendships and a sense of community and discovering more and more about the places, the people, the histories, the stories around her.
And it is in these stories that Amy’s prose is at its best, as she explores the incredible natural world around her, whether beachcombing, hiking through the gales, or on a fascinating seasonal assignment as a corncrake counter. Though the book is not predominantly a book of nature writing, that dimension makes some of the strongest impressions.
In a sense, then, the book is rather satisfyingly uncategorisable, as perhaps a good memoir should be. A mind interesting enough to warrant a memoir shouldn’t, after all, give us a one dimensional story. Indeed, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun is a book that smoothly weaves its way from addiction to poetry to nature to travel, simultaneously introspective and outward-looking; exploring feelings and the stars, emotions and shorelines with comfortable ease – providing a valuable reminder that we are very much products of the environments around us, environments we should not ignore but embrace.