In her inventive essay “Diving Into Berghain”, published online last year, Amy Liptrot wrote about a night out at the notorious techno club in Berlin. Only it was actually a piece about wild sea swimming and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the effect of loud bass (and flotation tanks) on the human body. In her debut book, The Outrun, Liptrot weaves similar webs, seamlessly linking memoir with topography, nature and a historical study of Orkney that stretches beyond the rocky archipelago, out across the oceans of time and into the cosmos.
Her story of escaping a remote sheep-farming upbringing in a locale called “the Outrun” for a life of thrills and hedonism in a sensory-overloaded, post-millennial London, followed by the almost inevitable psychic crash, subsequent spell in rehab and then slow recovery, back in the very landscape that she left, may seem familiar to anyone who has read more than one addiction memoir. Yet Liptrot refuses to wallow in self-pity, or dwell on the brutal late-night assault she survives in London (her attacker is sentenced to six years, for this and another attempted rape), and finds wonder instead in the drama of her surroundings, as if seeing them for the first time.
Here it is the poetry of the elements and observed ancient rituals that provides succour, rather than the twelve-step programme. Lambing, wall-building, swimming out to shipwrecks and watching equinox sunrises are designed both to punish and to provide pleasure, and ultimately they restore balance and aid recovery. These tough exercises ensure that landscape and body become interchangeable in Liptrot’s fecund prose. High on nothing but fresh air, she writes: “My body is a continent. Forces are at work in the night. A bruxist, I grind my teeth in my sleep, like tectonic plates . . . lightning strikes every time I sneeze, and when I orgasm, there’s an earthquake.”
Her beginnings were suitably Gothic. Liptrot’s manic-depressive father’s first glimpse of his daughter was beneath the whirring blades of a helicopter: straitjacketed, he was being flown off the island during an episode prompted by her birth, while her mother – now a born-again Christian and separated from her father – was being flown back in. Thirty-odd years later her father, dressed in an ever-present farmer’s boiler suit, remains at the farm, to which Liptrot returns when London has become too toxic. He still suffers manic episodes now.
Liptrot oscillates between identities. Her English parents relocated to Orkney in the 1970s to work this clifftop farm fringed with “grey flagstone – sheer drops and massive slabs”, where the family dog chases rabbits right off the cliff edge during a gale and booming echoes are created by waves entering unseen caves below. She does not feel fully Orcadian, or Scottish, or English (or a Londoner), yet time and distance enable her to acknowledge that she has been drawn to extremes and edges all her life – from teenage experimentation with drugs to a drink-driving incident that acts as a warning sign that things have gone awry. Only now, clean and serene, does she begin to find poetry and meaning on her doorstep.
Redemption-through-nature is now a literary subgenre, and The Outrun will no doubt sit alongside Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure and Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk – the sheer sensuality of Liptrot’s prose and her steely resolve immediately put her right up there with the best of the best. Much of this beguiling book was written during a winter on the four-mile-long island of Papay (situated off Westray, off Orkney, it is “shaped a bit like a Wotsit, or an old man with a walking stick, vomiting”) with little more than three kilos of porridge and Twitter for company. Indeed, the more isolated she becomes, the deeper Liptrot’s immersion in these beguiling islands and, in turn, the greater the chance of sustained recovery. She has crossed three islands to get here and the salted sea air becomes more vital than the MDMA of her clubbing days.
Technology also plays its part in this story. Where once she left drunken messages, Liptrot’s phone is now used to shape her walks, observe constellations and record the sound of the wind. Arriving at Papay’s sub-zero Rose Cottage, she checks the broadband connection before the hot water supply. Climbing out of a cairn on the empty island Holm of Papa only to realise that she’s in an area not charted on Google Maps, she writes: “I feel I have escaped. I am beyond the internet.” The subversive joy found in this pixellated, sub-cartographical hinterland is certainly shared by this reader.
Liptrot is an Orcadian warrior with the breeze in her blood and poetry in her fingers, and The Outrun equals works by fellow islanders such as George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies. It may even be a future classic. Wherever she journeys next, you will want to go with her.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot is published by Canongate (304pp, £14.99)
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war