Forgive me reader, I must confess: I blatantly judged this book by its cover. The eye-catching abstract illustration encouraged my impulsive purchase on a cold, wet afternoon in January. In truth, I had no idea what the book was about, but I figured if it turned out not to be a good read at least it would look pretty on my bookshelf.
But it is a good read; in fact, The Outrun is an excellent read that introduces Amy Liptrot as one of a new breed of nature writers who masterfully fuses the personal and the natural. In essence it's a lyrical and compelling memoir of recovery from alcoholism and connecting with the natural world, set against a backdrop of the Orkney Islands.
It’s also a love story to Orkney; but a love story that the author could only write having left the “wind-scoured and treeless” Orcadian landscape of her formative years to seek the bright lights of London, only to return – jobless, lonely and a recovering alcoholic – in search of sobriety. Throughout its pages there’s a juxtaposition between the hedonistic lifestyle of Amy’s London and the remote island life she returned to on Mainland, the largest Orkney island, and – during the two winters it took for her to write The Outrun – on Papa Westray (known as Papay), the most north-westerly Orkney island and home to just 70 people.
Amy’s story of recovery begins when she leaves a rehab programme and returns to Orkney to visit her parents with no intention of staying. But reconnecting with the island she fought so hard to leave in her teens means weeks turn into months, which turn into a year – her first year of sobriety. The turning point comes when she then gets a summer job working for the RSPB on a bird-conservation project monitoring the near-extinct corncrake populations. Driving around the islands at night listening for the distinct call of the corncrake opens her eyes to how fortunate she is to belong to such a beautiful place. From that moment the islands became her obsession and the natural world her salvation.
Like many recovering addicts Amy taps into fresh ways to fuel her compulsions and she discovers a world of stimulation and escape beyond alcohol. She develops an almost manic attentiveness to Orcadian folklore and natural history, especially when she seeks refuge over the winter months on the island of Papay. She obsessively learns about ocean currents, rare cloud formations and the astrological marvels, such as meteor showers and “Merry Dancers” (northern lights), which she enviably sees in the vast night skies. This intense information gathering process becomes an effective diversion tactic from her battle not to return to the bottle, and appears to be a better recovery solution than the AA’s 12 Steps Programme.
Running through the pages of The Outrun is an undercurrent of loneliness: the isolation of her alcoholic existence in London, where she finds herself constantly returning to her most reliable friend, alcohol; and then the loneliness of island life on Papay where her days are filled with solitary activities, from her ritualistic morning walks around the island’s coastline followed by an invigorating wild sea swim, to afternoons spent alone in her small cottage writing.
The Outrun is a bold and evocative memoir, but it’s also an elegy to the restorative value of connecting with the natural world. We witness the author’s transformation into somebody who understands and appreciates the cycles of the natural world. Therefore it’s apt that her anniversary of sobriety lands each year on the vernal (spring) equinox – a period that’s long been a celebration of new beginnings.