Nature saves us all: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from
Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from

Memoir is a genre that is not immediately appealing to me. Unless it’s a thoughtful autobiography of an artist or writer whom I admire, and therefore at least partly about the struggle of creativity, it just feels too self-indulgent or egocentric a project. So it’s a bit hit and miss whether I will enjoy reading one or not.

For instance, Romain Gary’s pseudo-memoir La promesse de l’aube was wonderful, even when I could see the ways in which the author was manipulating our emotions and exaggerating some scenes (or perhaps fictionalising them) for the maximum benefit and enjoyment of us readers. However, Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heart infuriated me, and I don’t think it was because of a gender division of the topics addressed, i.e. men go to war and are therefore interesting, while women drink and sleep around and are therefore dull. On the contrary, it’s usually the women I usually find more interesting, but not in that particular case. I think it was because the focus was not on the readers, but very much on the author/narrator.

Then there are the books which weave nature observations and personal narrative, harking back to the great Romantic tradition of philosophising about nature and how humans relate to it (or how the urban environment encroaches upon it and changes us humans). This is where you might find allusions whooshing over your head, but also the occasional tangential riffs and unusual erudite connections which will gladden your heart and make you feel smart. Two books which I heartily recommend in this respect are: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in the English Weather.

outrunWhere does Amy Liptrot’s tale of alcoholism and life spinning out of control fit in? It’s a strange beast, straddling the two sub-genres – memoir of self-destruction and nature writing. After a hedonistic lifestyle in London, almost but never quite successful in finding work, housing, relationships, the authors spirals into alcoholism and ultimately finds redemption by returning to her home in the wilderness and isolation of the Orkneys. It was largely the nature writing which appealed to me. Confessional writing is so prevalent nowadays and praised as ‘brave, raw, visceral’ and all those other adjectives, but it can come across as self-absorbed and repetitive. So my advice would be: do not read this book all in one go (as I did while tending my sickbed), but just dip into it a chapter at a time, sipping it cautiously like tea which is in danger of scalding you or ice-cream which could freeze you. Because it blows now hot, now cold, and I was often not quite sure if I loved it or thought it merely average.

The nature/lost soul  parallels and the rebuilding of self can feel a little forced or obvious at times:

I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together. I am building my defences, and each time I don’t take a drink when I feel like it, I am strengthening new pathways in my brain. I have to break the walls down a bit more before I can start to build them up again. I have to work with the stones I’ve got and can’t spend too long worrying if I’m making the perfect wall. I just have to get on with placing stones.

Yet there is an artless charm and wonder in this rediscovery of nature that is very hard to resist. There are quiet observations about lambing or bird-counting which refuse to sentimentalise life in welly boots. There is a bemused sense of ‘how did I get here from my passion for all things trendy and urban?’.

I never saw myself as, and resist becoming, the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type. But the things I experience keep dragging me in. There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.

The flatness and trelessness of the Orkney Islands, from
The flatness and the treeless-ness of the Orkney Islands, from

These are the kind of moments I remember from my childhood spent in a very under-developed countryside, probably far more backward (though less remote) than the Orkneys. They illustrate joys which become greater in post-event storytelling, when you forget about most of the hardship. But it never fails to amuse me how popular nature writing is in Britain, which has so few truly rural, undeveloped areas left (there are far more isolated villages and communities in France, for instance). Amy is seldom far away from the nearest internet connection, tweeting or posting images of seals and chatting to her London friends on Skype. Yet she and her readers hanker for reconnection with nature, both in its beauty and roughness – perhaps a nostalgia for a bygone age and unspoilt world.

The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at
The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at

Despite these quibbles, I did quite enjoy the book. The exhilaration of certain passages is infectious, such as this one describing the Northern Lights (known locally as the Merry Dancers):

I let me eyes adjust to the dark for the time it takes to smoke one cigarette then say, ‘Bloody hell’, out loud. In the past I have seen a greenish-tinged, gently glowing arc, low across the north, but tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn. There is static in the air and it’s an unusual kind of light, the eerie glow of a floodlit stadium or a picnic eaten in car headlights.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that a shorter book (or a series of essays) would have been just as good.


26 thoughts on “Nature saves us all: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun”

  1. Hankering for a Golden Age that never was is something we seem to make a habit of here in the UK! I share your ambivalence about The Outrun although like you, I’m drawn to its nature writing. I think I would rather have the autobiographical element than the self-consciously literary references which seem to be a feature of several modern nature writers.

    1. Perhaps I prefer to have my nature as a mirror of the soul descriptions in poetry or in diaries, but this ‘personalisation’ of nature doesn’t quite work for me.

  2. This calls to mind Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, certainly in terms of the healing power of nature theme. My head isn’t it the right place for this type of book right now; nevertheless, it does sound interesting.

    1. I have H is for Hawk on my TBR pile, but never got around to it. I don’t naturally gravitate towards those kind of books, although I like nature documentaries, but that’s when the I is usually out of the picture, isn’t it?

  3. Do read H for hawk, both of you, it was marvelous. I had it for a while before I tried it, too, but it did come up to expectation. As for memoirs in general, it’s like everything else, some are good, some not. I’m not into the navel-gazing ones, but some people have had extraordinary experiences, and if they can write well about them, you are transported into their world. Some of the most memorable books I’ve read are memoirs: The worst journey in the world (about the doomed Scott expedition to the South Pole), Into the Whirlwind (about Stalin’s gulag), An English wife in Berlin (about an Englishwoman married to a German during the first war), to name but a few…

    1. I quite agree about the navel-gazing, and that extraordinary lives should be shared and written about. First person memoirs can run the danger of exaggerations and/or inaccuracies, sometimes a more clinical telling by someone who was very close to the person can turn out to be more accurate – if accuracy is what one expects from a memoir,

      1. Accuracy is always a moot point, because memory is not accurate. I’m always amazed at how differently my sister and I remember events from our childhood! But accuracy can be found – still imperfectly, to my mind – in history books. In memoirs I think it’s interesting to be immersed in the flavor of someone else’s experience.

    2. Thank you for your recommendations, will have to check them out. I suppose I have to be in the mood for the true stories, and some of them are very inspiring!

  4. I feel the same way about The Outrun – and, honestly, H Is For Hawk is much, much better. Liptrot’s London-set sections about alcoholism felt too filtered to me: like she’d been through therapy, learned the words for everything she’d been doing, and dropped them into her manuscript, instead of letting the reader experience what she’d experienced before she got help. McDonald doesn’t do that – you’re much more inside her head, and she is such an astonishingly good prose writer, her sentences inherently much more interesting to read than Liptrot’s.

  5. It’s an interesting way to go about doing a memoir, Marina Sofia. I can see how you don’t really see it as fitting neatly into one or another sort of category, too, as it’s got elements of more than one. On the one hand, that can lead to a book that’s not sure what it wants to be. On the other, it can lead to an innovative book, too. Hmm….the Orkney setting is appealing. I’m glad you found things to like about this.

    1. The contrast between urban loneliness and the lonely rural sense of community was actually very well done, so yes, there was plenty to like. Maybe I shouldn’t have read it all in one go, though.

  6. I love Olivia Laing. Sometimes books are just too dense or intense to read straight through but this one sounds interesting. I love that name for the Northern Lights – the Merry dancers.

  7. Enjoyed your review! Everything I have heard about this book has been mixed. I am not quite yet feeling the need to read it though I am intrigued by it. will definitely keep it on my radar.

  8. Hee hee. Now tell us how you really feel! It may be that a book about an alcoholic finding her way out of the pit would be just the thing for another alcoholic. I don’t read many memoirs, but there must be something cathartic about writing them–guess I feel the urge to defend the genre, since i personally know 4 people writing them.

    1. I didn’t not like it, and I had a lot of sympathy for the alcoholic descriptions (I’ve had some experience with it in my family), but it’s best taken in small doses.

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