Another set of capsule reviews for you today, not because I don’t have 1,500 words’ worth of thoughts about either of these books (they are both fantastic), but because I’m afraid of falling behind in my reading/posting schedule. Maybe I should have started the year with fewer rabidly enthusiastic requests for review copies.
The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot
This is a memoir about alcoholism and recovery, combined with nature writing, in a way that sort of recalls Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. Liptrot grew up on Orkney Mainland, her father with bipolar disorder and her mother becoming ever more firmly enmeshed in evangelical religion as a method of coping. She’s a bright, restless, frustrated teenager who doesn’t feel at home in this tiny island community, and at eighteen she flees to university and to London, where she quickly develops a drinking and partying habit that spirals horribly out of control. Approaching thirty, she is in an intensive rehab programme, and when she gets out, she decides to come back to the islands. It’s meant to be temporary; it ends up lasting for two years, and she charts the process of her recovery along with the seasons on the islands and her growing awareness of the natural world, of how rich and rewarding sensory experiences can be when you’re sober.
For me, the book’s first section doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It focuses on Liptrot’s life in London: her inability to keep a flat, friends, a job, her breakup with her boyfriend. This is the collateral damage of addiction. It’s painful and moving to read about; you want to reach into the past, scoop up her young self, and tell her it’s okay. Where I found the memoir less effective was in its apparently intentional feeling of distance. When you read H Is for Hawk, you have the sense that you’re right there, watching Helen Macdonald’s disintegrating sanity from inside her skull. Liptrot’s prose has a different effect. It’s as though she needs to create a certain space between her present and her past, the person she was and the person who’s writing now. That’s understandable, but I still wish it wasn’t the case. She analyses herself almost too completely; rehab and the island nights have given her a set of tools, a vocabulary, to discuss addiction and its consequences, but by making use of that vocabulary in her creative writing, she tends to diminish the impact of her observations on the reader.
That said, this is still a very powerful book. By far the best sections were the ones that dealt with life on the remote Scottish islands; she doesn’t just stay on the Orkney mainland, but moves out to Papay, an island off Westray, which is itself off of Orkney, and she takes some day trips here and there to even more isolated rocks. The awareness of nature that pervades her days is beautiful and forbidding. She works for the RSPB, counting corncrakes, a job which requires her to drive around the islands late into summer nights, her car often the only one on the road. That stillness and solitude are conveyed perfectly. So is the appeal of sea swimming, which shocks and invigorates the body in a way that drinking and drugs used to do for her; she also writes about becoming addicted to the Internet–the shipping forecast, maps of the stars–and how it can both facilitate communication and cause meaningful connections to elude us entirely. She doesn’t draw many conclusions about this, just observes and discusses it. People on Papay use Facebook to compare weather warnings, photos of the Merry Dancers (the Northern Lights), water conditions. The people she knows in London, a fairly homogeneous group of young striving media professionals, use Twitter for vastly different ends.
I hesitate to be too critical, because it is such a brave thing to do, to write about your weaknesses and your pain and the ways in which you’ve fucked up and tried to do better. Ultimately, for alcoholism, I’d rather read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, and for finding the wild in yourself and yourself in the wild, I’d still plump for H Is for Hawk. But Liptrot does show us real beauty: the tombs at Maeshowe, aligned so that the setting sun shines straight down their entrances on solstice days; an island-wide primrose count; her, sitting in the front garden of her cottage on Papay, staring at the stars. I wanted to run off to Orkney by the time I was halfway through. It’s good escapism for January.
Thanks very much to Canongate Books for the review copy; The Outrun was published in the UK on 14 January.
Dinosaurs On Other Planets, by Danielle McLaughlin
On the back cover of my copy of Dinosaurs On Other Planets, there’s a blurb from Anne Enright, the first Irish fiction laureate. It is to the effect that this collection does not (as debut collections are often said to do) “mark the arrival” of a fresh and exciting new voice; that voice–McLaughlin’s voice–is already here. She’s landed; all this collection is doing is announcing her presence.
It certainly doesn’t have any of the wobbles or uncertainties that can mar debut story collections. I’m not a short story kind of girl; things I can’t sink my teeth into tend to bore me, and I cavalierly dismiss stories as being in this category. McLaughlin’s stories are different. They’re sort of like contemporary Flannery O’Connor if you stripped out the religion and replaced it with something very difficult to identify: maybe the clarity of despair, maybe just the lifelong act of putting one foot in front of the other.
She’s got some specific preoccupations: mental illness, especially undefined mental illness, is one of them, as are small children. She tends to come at similar ideas and images from different angles. In one story, a man with a corporate job in Dublin struggles to maintain a work-life balance, with a wife whose flashes of eccentricity are sliding into something more careless, and more dangerous to their little daughter, Gracie. Much later on in the collection, another story focuses on a woman with a corporate job in Dublin whose nine-year-old son Finn’s strange behavior is also performing this inexorable decline from childish peculiarity into something more pathological, but equally vague. She writes several stories about pregnant women, generation and mortality encountering each other in a nursing home or on the seashore among dying seals. None of the marriages in her fiction are happy; all are hobbled by a refusal or an inability to communicate, a crack in the foundations of the relationship caused by personality or timing or stubbornness or bad luck.
Unlike O’Connor’s fiction, McLaughlin’s doesn’t hold disasters, or rather, she doesn’t show us any disasters. She turns away just before the point of no return. One character is left stranded at the end of her story, about to club a seal to death in order to put it out of its misery; another, a habitually unfaithful husband, is just touching the cheek of his ex-lover’s daughter before McLaughlin brings the curtain down. When you read these endings, your stomach lurches. You know the drop is there, but you haven’t been allowed to travel down it. It creates a sort of endless literary vertigo. It’s genius.
Thanks to the kind folks at John Murray for the review copy; Dinosaurs On Other Planets was published in the UK on 14 January.