This beautiful book which has just won the Wainwright Prize 2016 for nature and travel writing will speak to anyone who has teetered on the edges of alcohol dependency or along the clifftops of the Orkney Islands. For this memoir by Amy Liptrot deals with these two themes: it relates the story of her descent into alcohol dependency as a young woman in London and her recovery in Orkney where she grew up.
The writer’s growing alcoholism coincides with the breakup of her family and we are immediately plunged into the challenges of her family life in the Prologue: we are given the image of her mother being wheeled across the runway of the island airport, carrying the newborn Amy to show her father who is being wheeled in the opposite direction in a straitjacket. For Amy’s father is bipolar and his illness forms a constant in the background of her upbringing. In practical terms his frequent hospital admissions mean that her mother is left to cope alone with the heavy demands of the farm-she turns to religion which contributes to the break up of the marriage and the selling of the farm. As a young adult, Amy is coping with the loss of family and the farm which was her home.
Yet Amy is ambivalent as a teenager about living on Orkney: ‘I grew up in the sky, with an immense sense of space, yet limited by the confines of the island and the farm’. She longs for the excitement, adventure and cultural variety of the city. She leaves to go to university and from there to London, where she temps, hangs out with other young graduates, lives a fast life both in reality and digitally- and drinks as they all do. But when her friends start to drink less, Amy drinks more and more and eventually her dependency has ruinous effects on her life- she loses jobs, alienates friends and flatmates, and loses the boyfriend she loves. Eventually she seeks help and through AA manages to break her dependency. We are left with no illusions as to the struggle this involves- we learn through her brief sketches of the other participants of the difficulties they have got into and the sheer hell endured to try to get off whatever stuff they’re addicted to. One of the strengths of Amy Liptrot’s account for me is the recurrent reminder of the lure and pull of alcohol-even when she’s been dry for months situations arise which trigger the craving and require the utmost willpower to resist. Getting free of alcohol is a hard, hard road.
The nature writing comes into its own in the second part of the book: alcohol free for some time but with nothing to keep her in London, Amy returns to Orkney for a while. She spends the summer working on a project for the RSPB locating the whereabouts of calling male corncrakes and later stays on in Orkney, spending the winter on the less populated island of Papay in the northwest of the archipelago. Initially she spends the nights seeking the corncrakes with the help of Google Maps and other islanders phoning in if they’ve heard the call. It is a delight to read how she fine tunes her ear to recognise the call better and fascinating to hear how she harnesses technology to help her. Her auditory skills are complemented by her sharp observational skills and the behaviour of birds and mammals is depicted in detail. Amy describes the ‘sea-scoured and wind-battered’ islands of Orkney with accuracy and precision- the kinds of grass, the lack of trees, the cliffs and coastline, the colours and textures of rock and stone and that relentless wind. She talks too of the islanders and their communities which include traditional crofters and farmers like ninety year old Maggie. Yet settlements are not static- she observes that on some islands there are often more houses than people now. ( I remember this from windswept Rackwick Bay on Hoy where some houses were in ruins and the place devoid of people and yet Sylvia Wishart’s paintings in the Pier Arts Centre seemed to show a vibrant community once lived there). And people within these communities themselves change and adapt : on the remote island of Papay an international arts festival has been held for the past three years and the islanders take the eccentricities of the swimming group, the Orkney Polar Bears, in their stride. Amy herself, after striding the clifftops of Papay, spends time on the Internet, talking, posting and communicating with friends elsewhere. As if the islanders in their flexibility and ability to adapt are mimicking the ever changing shape of sea and shoreline.
The book ends with Amy two years free of alcohol and off to visit her brother in Manchester, quietly confident that she has recovered. Questions that readers inevitably ask themselves like what made her drink to excess are explored by the writer with a light touch on and off throughout the book: was it a genetic predisposition to mental illness,her parents’ breakup or witnessing her father’s distress over years that led to her love of the wild side and predilection for excess? We feel, I think, that there is no one answer but all and every one probably played a part. And what was it precisely about that time on Orkney which helped her to recover? Amy herself gives us no direct answers, but allows us to see her healing over many months. For me, the nature work she was involved in seemed like an experience of mindfulness,listening, doggedly recording, focusing. Blotting out the buzz of distractions for large parts of the day. Developing observational skills about the natural world. Connecting with a community of people different from herself. But also during this time she continues to work through her past with courage and an honesty which is so impressive in such a young person. And she finds the strength to deal with those cravings which still surface and to face the future. This is a moving testimony indeed.