In the early pages of this haunting and inspirational memoir, author Amy Liptrot is returning to the Orkney island home of her childhood to spend time recovering under the (kind of) watchful eyes of her parents. What exactly she is recovering from is not immediately clear. What is apparent from the very beginning, though, is that this journalist and blogger has a way with words that would likely make even the dullest of tales worth reading. As she regales us with stories of the farmland and seascapes that surround her, from the myths of sea monsters to the astronomically impressive accounts of the skies, her measured and poetic writing draws us into the story without any real warning. And as we begin to hear of her childhood, with a manic depressive father and a religiously extreme mum, the story starts to match the impact of the words it’s written in.
The book is at its strongest, though, during the sections in which Liptrot reveals the nature of the demons she’s escaping. The most prevalent of those demons is the demon drink, but its buddies drugs and dangerous sexual encounters follow pretty closely behind. Living in London while trying to pursue a writing career, Liptrot finds that her enjoyment of drink and drugs turns into something more dangerous once she goes through a difficult breakup (also caused largely by drink). The sections in which this is portrayed, where we see the lies she tells and the lengths she goes to to maintain her habit, are so raw, so emotional, and so honest, that it’s hard to imagine a more affecting account of alcoholism ever being put down on paper. You’ll read through your fingers, but you won’t be able to look away.
A particularly scary night, which Liptrot believes would never have happened if it wasn’t for her drink problem, leads to a decision to get treatment. She then replaces her alcohol addiction with a dependency on the edges of nature, a desire to get to the most remote places she can, to plunge her naked body into the coldest sea she can find, to take work searching for a species of bird that is so hard to discover that the challenge fills a hole and satisfies a need. Liptrot’s recovery tale is spectacular, a beautiful account of how she uses the world around her to begin to mend the broken parts of her body and soul. It’s also an unbelievably truthful description of the difficulties that will always haunt an addict.
Any Cop?: There’s a while, after the extremely immersive section in which we learn of Liptrot’s addiction, where the nature writing in this memoir seem a little slow. Beautifully written, but maybe a tad meandering. But as the power of these sections accumulates, as we see how each story of the sky or the sea is another step towards a human life being restored to order, it becomes hard to resist their effect. Two very different styles and approaches combine in this work of non-fiction, but when viewed as one the result is a devastatingly unforgettable book.