Wellcome Book Prize 2016: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Amy Liptrot is one of six authors shortlisted in this year’s Wellcome Book Prize but I’d lay money on the fact she’s the only one of this august group of novelists, scientists and doctors who regularly woke up on an East London bedsit floor after days-long benders not knowing where she’d been and who she’d been partying with.
The Outrun is a non-fiction account of Liptrot’s journey from a childhood on a farm in the remote Orkneys to her twenties in London and then back to the Orkneys at 30, to try to pull herself out of alcoholism and unhappiness.
The London years are a revelation. The lives of temporary workers moving from one grim shared flat to the next, more expensive, cramped one is an insight into how many young people are forced to live. No wonder the afterwork meet up scene is heaving in pubs and clubs around the capital. But Liptrot lived it larger than most.
Even when in a strong relationship, she drank heavily, enthusiastically and she writes she had since she was 16. And when her beloved boyfriend couldn’t take her alcohol-fuelled behaviour anymore, she let go of any semblance of balance, drinking alone in her flat, getting into fights in pubs, waking up knowing how she got home, who she’d had sex with. She only just avoided being violently raped one night.
Finally she realises she can’t go on, so she returns to Orkney. Her parents are now divorced: her mother is born-again and lives in town; her father has a history of bipolar and still lives on the farm where she grew up. She stays with him.
It is here that she finds solace and meaning in her life, swimming in the ice-cold sea, watching the puffins and arctic terns, walking the wild, windswept land so bleak that there is barely a tree. She had been so eager to leave the island life behind as a teen - wanting to experience city life, writing for style magazines, partying with the cool kids - but it was in the return to Orkney that she found a much healthier version of herself.
By the book’s end she is marking two years of sobriety, chiefly gained by communing with nature, though she does attend AA meetings too. Touchingly she writes “I am on my way to see my toddler nephew Joe who was born shortly after I got sober. He will never see me drunk. … From the upper saloon of the MV Thorfinn I watch Papay disappear over the horizon. The last two years stretch and glitter behind me like the wake of the ferry. The powers are churning within me.” And you finish the book cheering her on, hoping her course will stay safe and straight.