Like my last read (Ali Smith’s Autumn), The Outrun by Amy Liptrot was a book I first heard about before it had been published in the US, first via this post over at Tales from the Reading Room and then again from a friend on Goodreads who wrote about how much he loved it. As with Autumn, I snapped this book up when I saw it at the library, and am glad I did.

The Outrun, the book, is Amy Liptrot’s memoir about alcoholism and recovery, about being from the Orkneys and living in London and going back to the Orkneys and finding things out about nature and herself and what she wants her life to be like, and at first I wasn’t totally sure I was going to like it. I’m not sure if it was the book or my mood, but I found the scene-setting of the beginning, where we learn about Liptrot and her family (her father has bipolar disorder; she has a younger brother; her mother became a born-again Christian; her parents got divorced; Liptrot herself was living in London and drinking way too much and having seizures and losing flats and jobs and relationships) felt a bit disjointed to me. But the beauty and energy of some sentences or descriptions or paragraphs carried me along, and once I reached the point in the book where Liptrot goes back to the Orkneys after completing a non-residential rehab program, I found myself totally won over. I was delighted by so many of Liptrot’s descriptions of her sober island life, whether she’s talking about rebuilding stone walls or watching clouds or going to an island uninhabited since 1958 and seeing an old farmhouse there, whether in passages about listening for corncrakes at night as a summer job, or about her time wintering on the small island of Papa Westray (Papay), where she goes on an 11-mile circumambulation of the island with the Papay Walking Committee one December day, despite the sun setting at 3:20 pm, despite cold and hail. I also loved reading about Liptrot’s solo Papay swims, with bits like this paragraph:

There are things about the sea you find out only by being in it. The waves carry stones, large pebbles suspended in the water, thrown around effortlessly. I watch, from a seal’s-eye perspective, a gull descend and land on the water. It seems not to have noticed me. One morning, the sky is reflected in the flat water and I’m swimming in the clouds. (197)

The Outrun, the place, is a general term for “the furthest reaches of a farm, only semi-tamed, where domestic and wild animals co-exist,” a place where “humans don’t often visit so spirit people are free to roam” (2). It’s also the name of the biggest field on the sheep farm where Liptrot grew up. In both the general and the specific it’s a space at the edge of the farm: in Liptrot’s case, it’s at the edge of the farm and the edge of cliffs and sea. It’s a place and mood that Liptrot clearly feels a kinship with, in the way it’s partly wild, in the way it’s windswept, in the way that daily domestic life doesn’t have a full hold on it. Liptrot writes, too, about the wildness of drinking, and the appeal of that, calling her drinking life “rough and windy and tangled” (20). Later, when she’s working with the structure of AA’s twelve steps despite her atheism, dislike of religion, and skepticism about the program, the wildness and bigness of nature is the closest thing she can find to a higher power, and a lot of the book is about how being in nature and learning about the natural world helped her recovery. One of the most appealing things about the book, for me, is the way Liptrot explores this ongoing appeal of wildness and edges, the way she writes about trying to figure out how to have room for those things in her sober life, in a way that’s healthy rather than destructive.

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