Review: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Bathymetry of the Soul
Early in Amy Liptrot’s sparkling memoir, on one of her frequent midnight haven’t-drunk enough-to-sleep cycle rides through deserted London chasing “the sensation of escape”, she swerves out of control, toppling off a towpath into a canal. This self-destructive accident is no outlier: she’s lived dangerously and desperately, a fish out of water among partying, nightclub-loving mates, whose company she leaves early to drink more quickly alone. Later, a few hard-won sober months on, after losing friends, jobs, flats and her partner, she returns to what was her parents’ farm on Orkney, back to where she was born and grew up, but never seemed to belong. Fearing it’s possible she may drink again, she ponders whether a “small, careful life” here could hold her.
She aches for her ex, can’t imagine how to dance sober and describes poignantly the moment she discovers renouncing drink doesn’t mean her sex life is over. Yet she demonstrates immense fearlessness and strength in remaining mostly alone, working nights tracking corncrakes for the RSPB, traveling “to where the internet ends”. Here she constantly searches and researches (perhaps addictively, she concedes) on land and online, to find out all she can about everything she sets eyes on: geology, clouds, shipwrecks, seals. Visiting the uninhabited island the Holm of Papay, she contemplates asking to be left to spend the night in a chambered tomb. “I crave either life in the inner city or to go to islands beyond islands, islands of the dead.”
She is passionately curious – about marine traffic, flight radar and, of course, herself, her childhood, her parents’ divorce, her addiction. She swims in ice cold water, addicted to how it jolts her system, and prompts thoughts of the ECT her father underwent for bipolar disorder. She adjusts to the slow rhythms of drystone dyking, carefully building, lifting heavy coping stones to bind the two sides of wall. She records storms and gales, greylag geese and breaking waves, uploading the sounds to the internet where her London friends can listen to her life.
In the brilliant chapter ‘Online’, she notes how technology tracks sharks and seabirds, measures ocean depths, records every song she listens to, plots her daily activities and movements, sleep and menstrual cycles – locates her. “I am not tracking a mysterious or endangered species,” she says, “I am carrying out semi-scientific studies into myself, performing bathymetry of the soul.”
Her achievement, if she can hold on to it, seems to be in turning simultaneously from and towards life on the edge. She says, of the elements, “I want to see if these forces will weigh me down, like coping stones, and stop the jolting.”
Praised by, among others, Jenni Fagan, Will Self and Stuart Kelly, this is a beautiful, intelligent, meditative debut, offering magical depths through a study of fierce vulnerability.
(Originally published in Gutter issue 15)
Canongate, £14.99, 280pp