Every so often you read a book you wish you had written. It is not the same as the idle desire to see the wrinkled forehead of the white whale, to hold a handmade gleaming gold fish in your hand, or to describe a gleaming banquet after a battle, but the desires are neighbouring kingdoms. It is when the combination of subject and style means you should ruefully salute. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is such a book.
Liptrot is from Orkney, a remote Scottish Island, but she does not sound it. She is 6 feet tall, and she has read Moby Dick. Here the similarities with this Editor end, as she knows about the birds I have lived with, and the history of the places I have seen and briefly admired. She is also a recovering alcoholic and writes about drink in a way that is haunting for anyone who is any way informed about addiction. But this is no misery memoir – it is a limpid account of mending. She had help – support from a recovery unit and family – but the majority of her account is solitary, and deeply thoughtful.
She lives alone in a lonely place and learns about the night sky, bird calls, how to rebuild walls and how to not drink. Recalling her life in London that lead to her need for recovery, the contrast between chaotic Hackney nights and freezing communal swims in an Orkney dawn is pronounced. She helps her father, a farmer, with the lambing and counts birds for the RSPB. She visits the most remote, tiny and abandoned islands in Orkney and starts to contemplate the 12 Steps, with very relatable concerns regarding AA.
Relatively sparing on self-pity and very open, the only criticism I can level at Liptrot is that I would like to know more: more about what she ate and read in the two years she covers in Orkney. There is a moment where she catches and eats razor clams, but greedy readers will remain disappointed.
The London side to her narrative will have familiar aspects for anyone who spent some of their twenties on London Fields drinking too much, living in a dingy flat you could not afford with no idea of how to get a job or maintain a relationship and making up for it by going to too many parties. This then gets a lot darker than many will have experienced, but The Outrun is ultimately a hopeful book. The focus here is on her finding a way forward, the people she encounters in this path bob in and out rather than feature heavily – much like the the corncrake she sees in her headlights at night after a summer of searching. A gleaming flash, and then it is over, but you are left better than you were before.