Just up the road from TOAST head office, situated in leafy Highbury, is a small, independent bookshop called [email protected] Many of us pass it on our daily commute and a few months ago we decided to go in. The scene that greeted us was one of literary glee - floor to ceiling bookcases and a small cafe, for whiling away the reading hours. We met Betsy Tobin, the joint founder, and together we concocted the premise for the TOAST Book Club - a series of monthly reviews, written by the bookshop team and published on the last Friday of each month. Though the book club will exist in a digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.* The book we have begun with is The Outrun by Amy Liptrot...
In this unflinching debut, Amy Liptrot journeys like a modern day Viking to her birthplace in the Orkneys in a quest to both ground and heal herself. The Outrun is part-memoir, part travelogue, part apology and part love letter to the islands that begat her. The daughter of a manic depressive and a born-again Christian, Liptrot’s parents settled on the mainland island before she was born, and the young Liptrot comes of age on a wild, wind-swept farm whose furthest untamed reaches – the outrun of the title – become her refuge.
Desperate to escape as a teenager, she eventually makes her way to London where she settles in Clapton, a dark pocket of Hackney. There she lands the first in a series of publishing jobs, falls blisteringly in love, and embarks on a turbulent ten-year affair with the bottle. The opening section of the book deals with this tumultuous period, and the London Liptrot inhabits during these years is as wild and unruly as the Orkneys.
Her life is an endless slipstream of late club nights, lost jobs and drunken blackouts where time and again she steers herself towards chaos and self-destruction, until one ‘crazy, hopeful’ night she pedals her bike in a drunken rush towards sunrise on Hampstead Heath and tilts headlong into Regent’s canal, where she drags herself to the banks and lays ‘flapping’ like a fish.
Having lost everything: partner, job, home, Liptrot eventually retreats to her island birthplace to repair herself, where she is terrified of losing her ‘edge’: the Hackney cool she’d cultivated so assiduously and which nearly claimed her life. She is only a few months out of rehab when she arrives back in Orkney and still precariously sober. She feels a ‘fraud’ when people congratulate her, as the desire to drink seems grafted into her bones, and she cannot imagine a time when she will be free of it.
Once back on the islands, Liptrot writes that she is ‘back under the decaying clouds and deep skies, living among the elements’ that made her; and it is here that her writing gathers pace, like the gale-force winds that blow relentlessly across the land. Whether she is writing about a beached whale, its carcass spread ‘like a carpet’ across the pebbles, the ‘bubbling’ song of curlews or the ‘naked, raw’ pain of sea swimming, Liptrot’s nature writing is pure pleasure – and nothing short of luminous.
She takes a job with the RSPB counting corncrakes, spending endless summer nights straining to hear their scraping call, and the following winter migrates north to Papay, the furthest outer reaches of the islands, where she joins a group of locals dubbed the Polar Bears who hurl themselves into frozen waters in a punishing weekly ritual. On Papay she binds herself to the land, wind and water around her – and in so doing, finally lays her demons to rest. This is a bold, fierce journey of a book, shot through with honesty and stark beauty —a powerful tribute both to the author and the islands which helped shape her.
Words by Betsy Tobin
Read more reviews from the TOAST Book Club or purchase the books from [email protected].
*All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy of the next book and a TOAST scented candle.