This review originally appeared in The Irish Times.
We have come to expect more of nature writing than we once did. It tended, until recently, to come in handsomely produced and gift-friendly volumes, and to take a gently contemplative and often lyrical approach to its subject. It tended, too, to be the preserve of writers of a recognisable type (male, donnish, faintly druidical), leading the poet Kathleen Jamie to deride the cult of the ‘Lone Enraptured Male’.
All that changed, of course, with the phenomenal success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. While it was not without its precursors (Olivia Laing’s To the River, for instance, charts a similar confluence of personal and natural currents), its influence now seems inescapable. Macdonald demonstrated that nature writing can be passionately erudite and beautifully observed, but also viscerally intimate and inseparable from the rawness and disorder of our lived experience. Like Macdonald, who returned to falconry following a bereavement, Amy Liptrot approaches the natural world by way of the personal, fusing nature writing with a stark and moving memoir of addiction.
The child of southern migrants, Liptrot is raised on a farm on the Orkney ‘mainland’, as the largest of the islands is known. Like all incomers, they are regarded with benign scepticism by the locals. Orkney is an unforgiving place to establish a smallholding, and most southerners don’t last long. The family makes a go of it, however, and the childhood Liptrot sketches is for the most part wholesome and contented, if not entirely cloudless. Though her parents are loving and hardworking, her father suffers from manic depression and is prone to unpredictable behaviour. Her mother seeks solace in religion and joins a group of evangelical Christians. They will later separate, for reasons that are typically contested.
On the islands, the elements breed sturdiness. As a child, Liptrot ranges fearlessly over the ‘wind-scoured and treeless’ expanse of the farm, scrambling over its stone dykes and skirting its plunging cliffs. By the time she is eighteen, though, she has grown resentful of the muck and toil of life on the farm. Feeling the adolescent’s sense of confinement, even under the limitless Orcadian skies, she yearns for ‘the hot pulse of the city’.
London doesn’t disappoint. She falls in with a loose collective of friends. They are young or youngish, scraping by on the fringes. They talk about getting into publishing, making it in music or fashion. There are warehouse parties in Soho and Shoreditch, nightclubs that vanish within weeks of opening. There are drugs, of course, because this is London and they are young. And there is drinking. There is a lot of drinking.
These sequences are especially vivid. Liptrot recalls her early excesses with the wary nostalgia of the recovering addict, and evokes them with a kind of blurred intensity. A solvent-fuelled picnic in London Fields, is a welter of ‘limbs and sun cream and honey and ants, all sticky and sweet’; she feels the urge, walking home after a party, to ‘rub the city onto my skin…to inhale the streets’.
But this idyll of hedonism is short-lived. Liptrot’s drinking is out of control almost from the beginning, and her life in London soon lurches towards chaos. Her boyfriend moves out (she had, she reflects ‘squeezed the last love from him’), and she is unable to hold down even the menial temping jobs that have sustained her. Exhausted and despairing, she enters a recovery programme. Six months later, bruised and aimless but tentatively sober, she is home in Orkney.
Alert to their familiarity, perhaps, Liptrot dispenses with these preliminary events in eighty pages or so. There is the risk of tedium, too, in chronicling the subsequent stages of recovery. For the alcoholic, sobriety is a lifelong project. The addiction narrative, having traced the upward portion of its arc, threatens to peter out in a perpetually provisional blue sky. It is a challenge that must be overcome not only by the narrative, but by the recovering addict. What is life to consist of, now that it has been so thoroughly emptied out? How are all these days to be filled?
Back in Orkney, the emptiness is not merely metaphorical. ‘The sky gets bigger,’ Liptrot observes, ‘as the train travels further north.’ She seeks refuge in a cottage on the island of Papa Westray (known as ‘Papay’), a place even more northerly and remote than the island where she spent her childhood. The house is uninsulated, perched on a narrow strip of island and exposed on two sides to an often tumultuous sea. ‘It will be impossible to live here,’ she notes, ‘without being aware of the weather.’
For all its bleakness and isolation, Liptrot feels at home here. It is this intimacy with the elements, she begins to realise, that will form the basis of her salvation. Like many recovering addicts, she is eager to find new objects for her displaced compulsions. The islands themselves become her obsession; she studies their weather, their history and archaeology. At night there are the riches of the unpolluted northern skies. She becomes fixated on ever more northerly islands, travelling to Fair Isle and battling her way up the ‘preposterous ski slope’ of its Sheep Rock, as if obsessed by the very idea of extremity.
These digressions are engrossing in themselves, but we begin to glimpse a unifying vision. Although Liptrot’s style is superficially stark, eschewing the lyrical excesses derided by Kathleen Jamie, it belies a quiet relentlessness of ambition. With her almost manic attentiveness – to ocean currents, to cloud formations, to the processes of erosion – Liptrot seems intent on absorbing nothing less than an entire environment, in all its vastness and complexity. In the aftermath of an all-consuming addiction, there is something consoling, perhaps, in this sense of totality.
Recalling a photograph taken during her lost years, Liptrot reflects that she appeared ‘unfathomably, unquenchably sad’. Drinking was never the answer, of course, and the solace she sought for so long was always illusory. There is no answer, of course, but as this humane and compelling memoir shows, there are far more interesting questions.