As a newborn baby, Amy Liptrot arrives back on Orkney from Scotland, in the arms of her mother just as her father is being wheeled to the plane in a straitjacket. He is on his way from the family farm to a secure mental hospital. It is the briefest of encounters on an airport runway, pre-memory for Amy but one that will stay with her nevertheless. Amy's father has suffered a manic episode brought on by her premature birth and it will be many months before they see each other again.
It is a dramatic start to a life and to a book and one that resonates throughout as Amy struggles with her own demons.
I am afraid I am as guilty as anyone else who hasn't lived there.
I too see Orkney as a paradise.
For me what the islands may lack in charm (there is nothing quaint or twee about Orkney) they more than compensate for in atmosphere, scenery, big skies and vast expanses of space, sea and history . Witness yesterday...sorry I got a bit carried away and it seems to be happening again...
It is the sort of place that either penetrates your soul or it doesn't. If it does then an addiction follows, a long-distance love affair and a sense of affinity. To be born and raised there is an entirely different matter and for Amy the need to leave dominates...
'Growing up in the wind leaves you strong, sloped and adept at seeking shelter.'
Whilst her mother seeks solace in evangelical religion Amy heads to London for that shelter and what can only be described as a life on the edge. Relationships and employment dissolve in a two-year miasma of drugs and alcohol, homelessness and destitution prevail, yet throughout it all those deeply embedded echoes of Orkney are everywhere.
And with it comes ' a quietly vibrating sense of loss and disturbance.'
It's not just alcohol coursing through Amy's veins, Orkney is flowing freely too, but it is the alcohol that is now doing the greater damage. 'A slave to the habit of pain,' and a sudden bout of desperation and insight leads Amy into months of rehab in London. Alcohol had become her default method for alleviating anxiety and dealing with stress, and when the 'unwanted fond thoughts of home' creep in and ambush her Amy knows that it might be time to acknowledge those echoes of Orkney and return.
'I wonder if it's possible to really come back once you've lived away for a while. or if it's called coming 'home' when you never belonged.'
With reconfigured priorities Amy washes up on her island again and embarks on a journey of rediscovery and renewal. That all sounds a bit cliched and dramatic, even predictable perhaps, but not so.
Old and previously arduous chores become new and refreshing experiences as Amy returns to help her father on the family farm (by this time her parents have divorced) very significantly she is drawn to wall-building, and she starts to explore the uninhabited islands around the coast too. London clubland and night life is replaced by corncrake conservation with the RSPB, and when she heads for a cottage on the remote island of Papay for the winter it will be here that Amy truly rediscovers herself.
'My ties and traditions are my own to make. I can choose where I will belong.'
The internet, and being able to keep in touch with the outside world as well as seeking knowledge play a big part in recovery, so you will be pleased to know it isn't all hair shirts and self-denial. In fact, it's wet suits and snorkelling for Amy, and her analogy with the legend of the Selkie, as she peels off her wetsuit, made me wonder why it has taken so long for someone to think of that comparison. Sea swimming becomes exhilarating and cleansing opening up new worlds and (as usual) made we want to go and dive in somewhere.
'I feel as if I've opened a door that has always been in my house but I had never noticed.'
Astronomy suddenly becomes fascinating too, whilst natural phenomena like the Fata Morgana (a form of superior mirage where cool air below warm air creates a visual inversion that can be seen but never approached ...or something like that) and the Northern Lights, fondly called the Merry Dancers on Orkney, replace those highs induced by drugs and alcohol in the past.
I still feel I'm making it all sound a bit too good to be true for which I apologise because Amy Liptrot does no such thing, and nor does the book read in that way. This is about one woman's struggles and when the cravings for alcohol invade they are a harsh reminder that The Outrun is a book about addiction and temptation, about salvaging and restoring a shipwreck of a life, refloating, reprovisioning and repurposing (I could go on, all the re-words fit here and defeat all the de-words) and with the help of and by paying careful attention to the natural world Amy Liptrot achieves it.
The fault lines in the cliffs mirror the cracks and crevasses in her life..
The waves breaking on the shore...there is only so much height any wave can sustain before it breaks and crashes down...
Beachcombing after a storm...empty shells and picking up the pieces.
Awaiting the unexpected yet knowing in her heart that there will no return to addiction, Orkney cares for and works its magic on one of its own.
The Outrun a book I will read again, and maybe again.