Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World

An extreme choice to pursue a writer’s dream (Falkland Islands, a few years ago): What if you had A Room of Your Own? If you could go anywhere in the world for up to three months to write the novel of your dreams? Where would you go?

An enviable position for aspiring writers. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Nell Stevens answered when she was twenty-seven, a Global Fellow from Oxford, England completing her MFA at Boston University’s creative writing program. How can you not be intrigued about Stevens when her choice was the “bottom of the world” – the Falkland Islands, in the wintertime?

The Falklands are an archipelago in the southern hemisphere, en route to the Antarctic Peninsula, where seasons are reversed from ours. So the author spent her summer reawakening in a land “stranger, wilder, colder, and bleaker” than she could imagine. In your wildest sunshiny dreams, the Falkland Islands, in the dead of winter when the sun rarely shines, would be a strange, wild idea.

Falkland Islands
Via Wikimedia Commons, by User:Sting [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Besides, it’s not a place you’d typically dream of. Maybe if you’re British you’d be curious since it’s a British territory. And if you’re a wildlife enthusiast, a nature adventurer, the Falklands could be on your bucket list for a summer destination, particularly to witness the greatest colonization of Gentoo penguins on earth. But our intrepid author ventured there even when nature lovers don’t, when “there is more nothing than there is something.” A place “so desolate, so isolated” and so gray Stevens resorts to describing the landscape’s colors in amusing shades of gray like seal-flank gray.

Before you get the wrong impression that Bleaker House is a bleak, dreary read, better set the record straight. Key to characterizing it, alluded to above, is that’s its darn funny. Smiling, chuckling, laugh-out loud funny.

Jacketed with an adorable penguin on the grayish-front cover and accolades on the back saying it’s “fun to read” and “charming,” Stevens’ debut is clever and full of wit. Though there’s nothing humorous about her anxieties, self-effacement, and feelings of worthlessness if she doesn’t produce a novel with characters that feel real by the time she hits thirty. Until now, her writing has been judged dry and pointless, rejected.

Stringent airline restrictions led to paring down essentials to the barest minimum, a problem that plagues. Yet the determined author made sure her hefty copy of Bleak House, from which she quotes, accompanied her (along with her Kindle), prioritizing intellectual substance over food and ensuring a nagging reminder of the multitude of vivid characters Dickens created versus her vexing work-in-progress. Which makes this a serious, intimate look at the struggles of self-actualization and becoming an artist packaged in an inventive, whimsical way.

Stevens goes far, geographically and artistically. Bleaker House is billed as “a work of memoir and fiction.” A memoir broken up with fictional writing pieces in the form of spreadsheets, short-stories, and the obsessed over novel-in-development. An unusual, experimental journey, reflected in an unusual, experimental narrative.

Creative formats serve multiple purposes. First, to offer insight into the motivation behind the words stated in her internship application pitching the Falklands. For instance, in a spreadsheet column she wrote: “There has never been a literary novel set there.” Alongside it, another column in which she candidly reveals: “If I can teach myself the art of loneliness, then perhaps the art of writing will come more easily to me.”

Elsewhere we learn she chose an empty place assuming “zero distractions” to achieve “effortless concentration.” Contrary to what you might think, Stevens left behind an active social life (albeit a dissatisfying love life) and a happy family life (absent the drama that can inspire compelling novels). So her thinking went along these lines: if she forfeits all distractions, her novel will burst forth from agonizing blank pages, animated by a dramatic landscape.

Stevens pokes fun of herself to prove her writing is flawed. She doesn’t just tell us she shows us, exaggerating the point eccentrically. Her short-stories, “The Personal Assistant” and “Misadventure,” are wacky, fall flat, and verge crudely, an attempt to be bold and critical of herself in an outlandish, condescending way. To her dismay, this enterprise continues: her novel is slow, slow going and corny. Since it’s set in the Falklands, she remixes the absurdity of what’s she’s finding, but there’s a gem of poignancy in her solitary character, Ollie, who parallels her feelings of “ridiculousness and doubt, loneliness, hardship.”

Stevens is a student well-versed in planning and organizing, someone who counts days, words, calories, and the only luxury she’s brought: chocolates. She’s also someone drawn to challenging herself, such as the time she went to Lebanon to teach English in a refugee camp and war broke out. She seeks to put herself in life-changing positions to make her life more interesting for writing and to grow as a person.

The Falklands is a test. This syllabus is aptly dubbed: “isolation taster course.” Grade this student A+ for identifying what must be one of the most isolating places in the world in the winter, marked by a “guestless guest house” on an island archipelago totaling around only 2,000 to 3,000 residents. This student doesn’t cut corners for she could have at least selected Stanley, the capital of the Falklands (though she stayed a week to get acclimated and conduct research in the government’s archives.) Instead, she chose Bleaker Island, population two, plus a housekeeper who thinks the printer is the Internet – a “disconnected life.”

The Falklands are located in the South Atlantic Ocean east of Argentina. In 1982, Argentina invaded the islands. Britain won the war but the aftermath is still very much felt, which the author uncomfortably discovered when she arrived in Stanley, palpably suspicious of strangers (and writers, presumably journalists came in droves to report on the war).

Just like her fiction, her journey “unfolds in increasing degrees of strangeness” as she finds herself in a “strange landscape” that’s “not so much a different country as a different planet.” Stevens wasn’t prepared for all the discomfort.

Remember how snail-like the Internet was when it first emerged? She needs to buy scratch cards with magical codes to access it, if you’re lucky enough to find a magical card in the first place. Food is also scarce, expensive, and “fresh” produce and fruit precious. The news is doled out on DVDs, a week at a time. Sure there’s radio, but mostly there’s indomitable weather, more like forces of nature, and relentless solitude, except for a few lovely days with the lovely owners of the guest house she’s staying in, the one without the guests.

At one point, the author wonders: “How to fathom the bleakness of Bleaker?” She decides it’s bleaker than anything she’s seen before.

This memoir-embedded-with fiction is sprinkled with tidbits from the long-time director of her program, novelist Leslie Epstein. The author tries her hardest to follow his “tips on writing and life,” but when did writing and life go as planned?

“Passionately hungry,” Nell Stevens couldn’t have predicted the fruits of her labors. What she finds is more precious than the single potato she cherished.

Lorraine

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Dogs at the Perimeter

Broken memories, broken souls, and a broken country (Montreal 2005; flashbacks to the Cambodian genocide 1975-1979): Madeleine Thien is a literary star in Canada. She ought to be one in America too.

If only Dogs at the Perimeter was dystopian fiction. Yet historically, Thien’s searing novel really did happen. Which makes her sensitive approach to telling horrific history more laudable.

Thien focuses on the psychic trauma to survivors of unimaginable horrors when “nothing seemed real.” What happens to their brains, to the area that regulates memories? What’s lost? What’s left?

Canadian-born Thien creatively sets the contemporary portion of her historical novel at a brain research center in Montreal to drive home the memory theme. (She lives in Montreal, where there’s a leading neurology center.) There, two characters propel the telling: Janie, a researcher in a lab that studies brain activity, and her senior neuroscientist boss and friend, Dr. Hiroji Matsui.

Thien has us thinking about memory in terms of fragments, opening with a mini-Epilogue (and later other mini-introductions) she calls “Fragments.” Fragmentation of memories, minds, souls, and an entire society is the devastation she examines. Fragmented also in the sense that the author tells us precisely what she wants us to know and leaves much out. I probably spent as much time googling as reading this 253-page paperback release. (The novel was originally published in 2012.) That it so provoked is a testament to its eye-opening engagement.

In a lengthy, fascinating interview, Thien says Cambodia’s genocide was essentially “invisible”:

“It’s one of those genocides that seems to be known at the basic level – when you say “Khmer Rouge” people know – but after that, there’s not a lot of knowledge.”

Astonishing, for these killing fields took place well-within recent memories of the Holocaust, also under the guise of making life better for the masses. History repeating itself, grimly. Where were the lessons learned?

Thien’s haunting account uses what may well be a conservative figure – two million (out of a population of 7 million at the time) – to cite the number of Cambodians tortured, murdered and perished due to starvation and other bodily breakdowns at the brutal hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, after a five-year civil war and before another. (The UN finally brokered a peace accord to end an “infinite war” in 1989.)

No one knows for sure how many Cambodians were wiped out. Chillingly echoing Nazi fanaticism of keeping track of their crimes against humanity, Pol Pot’s holocaust also kept meticulous records, so perhaps a more accurate accounting will come to light when an extraordinary museum is erected in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s ground zero for it was from here that all the “city people” were forced to evacuate into the jungles, rice fields, and schools-turned-prisons, tearing apart families, leaving behind and losing everything, including identities and names.

A $40 million Sleuk Rith Institute dedicated to memory, justice, and healing was the architectural vision of Zaha Hadid, whose sudden death appears to have delayed the ambitious project. Thien’s memory theme eerily resounds within the envisioned Museum of Memory. Until then, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, referred to in the novel, is piecing these fragments together, supported by Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program. Thien’s determined novel aims to do the same for us.

The novel is all the more important right now as America is going through a dark period in our history, when we’re seriously worried about the fragility of our democracy and on high-alert to the threats of totalitarian governments. An interesting convergence of pertinent events is happening, or just ended. One is Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father, now streaming on Netflix, inspired by two Cambodian survivors: a friendship and the memoir by Haing S. Ngor. An exhibit recently closed at the U. S. Holocaust Museum, and there’s been a surge in dystopian fiction titles like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and It Can’t Happen Here back onto bestseller lists. All trying to make sense of the senseless, carrying warnings about freedom, morality, vigilance.

Note: Ngor’s heartsickening words preface the novel: “Tell the gods what is happening to me.” Which Dogs at the Perimeter does in Thien’s unique way. Ngor won an Academy Award for his supporting role in the 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Troubling that it seems we need to be hit over the head again filmically to jog our memories, or etch a memory, about the worst that can happen to vulnerable and complacent people under evil despots.

The artful author has created an artistic website for the novel that includes delicate, entangled, lace-like drawings related to the brain, a depiction labeled “minimalist,” alluding to and quite descriptive of Thien’s writing style.

Her first introductory fragment informs us that Janie has not heard from Hiroji in three months, having disappeared without a trace. Others are drawn from Hiroji’s files Janie finds in his apartment where she’s holed up in. Immediately, the reader is seized with curiosity as to why she’s taken up such a bare, sorrowful existence, apparently separated from her husband, Navin, and their 7-year-old son, Kiri, whom she adores.

Other fragments send messages about the brain from Hiroji’s notes on neurological cases of patients losing their memories and minds. Then, Janie stumbles on his personal letters, which arouse fragments of memories when she was a girl in Cambodia terrorized under the Khmer Rouge. Some memories are tenderly evoked, like the sound of her father’s voice echoing like “rainfall.” As these fragments accumulate and sharpen, we painfully sense and feel Janie’s deep-seated, emotional turmoil and the Cambodian thread connecting her to Hiroji, which might explain his vanishing. The details we’re given are still relatively scanty, allowing the author to deftly prepare us for what’s to come.

Chapters alternate between Janie and Hiroji’s names, sharing fragments of past histories. As Thien’s minimalist style reveals more, their chapter names are altered, jarring us, reflecting their former lives and selves (and those of significant others). Even Cambodian children took up arms and spied on millions the Communists deemed enemies and useless. An entire citizenry trusted no one if they had any chance of staying alive. Radicalism that sought to erase every element of a progressive society, destroy a beautiful country, and rock Buddhist beliefs.

The author threads her chapters finely, laying bare fragments of the atrocities. More than enough to rip our hearts, disturb existentially.

People went to “great lengths in the hope that they never will be found.” Dogs at the Perimeter takes an unusual approach to explain why.

Lorraine

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Sing, Unburied, Sing 1

The ghosts of racism (Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and Delta regions, past and present colliding): Jesmyn Ward’s brilliant Sing, Unburied, Sing woke me up nights. Of all the books I’ve blogged about, this is the one most affecting.

Creative writing professor at Tulane University Jesmyn Ward – who just won a Macarthur Genius Award and is a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award having already received it in 2011 for Salvage the Bones – has created a work of art that’s an activist’s plea for racial justice, equality, dignity. She speaks for all the oppressed, marginalized people who’ve been victims of bigotry, violence, racial profiling, economic injustices and other forms of discrimination and prejudice not only in America’s Deep South – where all the author’s books are set, specifically in Mississippi her home – but for swaths of our country where people are also suffering and stereotyped.

“The rotten underpinnings of the South anchor the whole damn country, like the swampy bottom of the Mississippi River delta. And now we are all sinking in it,” she wrote in a 2016 piece, This Was the Year America Finally Saw the South.

Clearly, this is not a light-hearted novel. The songs that it sings are painful ones, sorrowful like the Sorrow Songs sung by slaves on plantations and at Parchman Farm – Mississippi’s notorious State prison with its legendary brutality said to be worse than slavery – wrenchingly portrayed in the novel. An immoral past that lurks and crashes into a troubled, troubling present, embodying the racist soul of the novel. Lest we forget, Mississippi Blues music originated from the Delta.

The author writes like a poet. Not just rhythmically but in words that pack a lot of meaning into a few. At 285 pages, the novel feels longer as we stop to contemplate the implications of veiled words or a phrase, subtexts and emotions. Illustrative is the lyrical title and the word unburied, which took me almost to the end (page 233, to be precise) to fully grasp its full import, making the novel an ideal choice for book clubs. Moreover, it could trigger honest, deep-set feelings for this fiction is as real and as forceful as it gets. Hot like Mississippi’s heat.

My night wakefulness brings to mind what Pat Conroy revealed how he felt about slavery when he read Toni Morrison’s Beloved: he got “nightmares”. In fact, some are calling Jesmyn Ward the Nobel Prize winner’s contemporary.

Opening with a chapter on the graphical slaughtering of goats, the author forewarns that her story of a poor black family living in bayou country is going to be harsh, that her story will be Black or White, not gray. Yet what bubbles underneath the surface is nuanced, boiling with anger, grief, despair, disillusionment, confusion, waiting to erupt like Yellowstone’s geyser. The surfacing happens most of the time in cringing and subtler ways as everyone in this family is hurting, building to several out-of-control explosions. The most central, setting off the most reactions, is brought about by a car trip from Mississippi’s south to the north, to that torturous prison in the Delta.

Parchman Prison labor
Photo by The New York Times [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Some describe the novel as a “road trip.” It is in the sense that its intent is to carry home the white father of the two children in the family, incarcerated for three years. But this is not a trip that frees. And it’s not the kind of high-spirited trips you might immediately think of like Thelma and Louise or Jack Kerouac’s rollicking classic, On The Road. No, this is a bedeviled trip from start to finish, where the spirits are dark and ghostly.

Speaking of ghosts … Two of the characters who inhabit the novel powerfully and importantly are ghosts: Given and Ritchie. Ritchie’s spirit is the more prevalent and invasive, his yearning voice even taking over a chapter. An unsettling presence when the family begins its trek home from Parchman, but the truth is he’s been weighing down the patriarch in the family, Pop, for a very long time. Back then they called him Riv, when he was an innocent imprisoned at the wretched slave-farm, where Pop met Richie on the cotton chain gang. Ritchie was just a boy, thirteen, the same age as our male narrator, Jojo (Pop’s grandson). The second apparition – Given – appears whenever Pop’s daughter, Leonie (Jojo’s mother) – our female narrator – is high on drugs. Ritchie and Given were both murdered young, murdered because of the color of their skin.

You may not favor the magical realism style of writing, but Ward works it like magic. She invents supernatural beings to vividly express how the history of racism keeps repeating and haunting. She imbues two characters – the alternating narrators, a boy and the mother he can only bear calling Leonie – with super-powers. They can see the ghosts of the racial past so we can.

To borrow from Laura McBride’s short-cut to introducing the main characters in her novel, ‘Round Midnight, here’s a snapshot of this sorry family:

  • Jojo is the one who breaks our hearts.
  • Leonie is the one who can’t mother.
  • Kayla is the “golden one,” the one most “starved for love.”
  • Pop is the tough one whose soul can’t rest.
  • Mam is the sweet one dying of cancer.
  • Michael is the white one, the outsider.

To fill in the blanks some more: Jojo is the profound heartbreaker because he’s just a kid expected to be both a man and a mother. His acceptance, sensitivity, caregiving, and abundant love for his three-year-old sister Kayla also uplifts us the most. He sleeps on a pallet on the floor with Kayla to soothe her. Their drug-addicted, physically and emotionally abusive mother is never around, physically or emotionally, unhealthily grieving the violent loss of her protective younger brother, Given. Pregnant at 17 by Michael, she’s the character most complicated, begging us to try to understand her rather than like her. Even that’s not easy as she’s so out-of-it she doesn’t notice her children and when she does, she “can’t.” Can’t isn’t poetic but there’s so much baggage and distress loading down all her can’ts. Most evident is her Mama (Jojo’s Mam) is dying. A herbal healer, she can’t heal herself.

Jojo and Pop are the carers in this novel (Mam used to be but now she’s bedridden). Grandparents gave Jojo a place to call Home. Home is more than a physical place, it’s the place where we’re cared for. Ward wants us to know this even before we begin the novel, through a lovely dedication to her mother: “who loved me before I took my first breath. Every second of my life, she shows me so.” The concept of Home looms large. Baby Kayla’s clinging, hugging, nuzzling, longing to be “smushed” fills the pages, meant to not only consume her and Jojo but us. Unconditional love and belonging are strong tools that might help weaken some of Leonie’s can’ts.

Jojo and Pop’s nurturing are the lightness, as is the beauty of the saltwatery, marshy landscape and Mam’s growing garden. We’re searching for Hope yet keep bumping up against the stark contrast between the richness of the fertile soil to nourish versus the deprivation of the “black-soiled heart of the State” personified by Parchman.

Mississippi is our hungriest State, the second poorest. Sing, Unburied, Sing sings those Mississippi Blues. Music we should all be listening to right now.

Lorraine

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A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life 3

Celebrating a Southern literary giant: We miss you, Pat Conroy. That’s a great big WE like your great big heart and your “big-beaming” smile, and the big shock and loss we all felt when you passed away in 2015 at 70. We’ve been honoring your greatness ever since. Through the establishment of the Pat Conroy Literary Center. Through an annual literary festival in your beloved coastal town, Beaufort, South Carolina. With this little gem of your writings, packed with your bigness.

Meant to be a “keepsake” with an attached red ribbon bookmark, A Lowcountry Heart celebrates Pat Conroy’s literary prowess, convictions, and generous heart. It’s a loving and thoughtfully selected compilation of “letters” – blog posts the long-handed, “language-obsessed” author called them, not liking the word blog at all nor wanting to give up the feel of his craft despite “writer’s cramp,” relented in 2009 when his health was declining limiting his travel. It also includes his speeches and other writings, a collaboration between his long-time (thirty years) editor/publisher Nan A. Talese and Conroy’s writer wife, Cassandra King, both of whom contributed personal reflections adding to his.

It’s a perfect selection to read as the second Pat Conroy Literary Festival kicks off soon, running from October 19 – 22, 2017. Inspiration for this “letter.”

We miss Pat Conroy even if we never met him at one of his legendary book signings, for we’ve likely read one of more of his books. A prolific writer of Southern fiction and memoir, he “often intermingled the two.” You probably figured that out already if you’ve read The Great Santini influenced by his “tyrant” of a father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot who moved the Conroy clan (Pat Conroy was one of seven children) all around the South, the settings for his works. Or, read The Lords of Discipline based on the “four-grueling years” he spent at The Citadel, the military college in Charleston. You may not know, though, that a girl who caught his eye in kindergarten is a character in The Prince of Tides; that the gay piano player in South of Broad was inspired by an “irreplaceable friend” whom Conroy cared so much about he moved to San Francisco for a while since his friend’s southern family disowned him; that The Water is Wide is based on his gloriously happy year teaching poor black kids on tiny Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, a book some call a novel, others a memoir; that a girl he swooned over in 8th grade appears in Beach Music; or that The Losing Season is about the year his basketball team lost the Southern Conference. The way he went about contacting and uniting his old teammates is one for the books. I myself just found a gorgeous copy of his last published memoir, The Death of Santini, said to put closure on his relationship with his tyrannical father.

There’s a powerful theme here that has everything to do with never forgetting the people who “changed my whole life and the way I saw the whole world,” for good and for bad. Bless his mother who taught her son Pat about “evil” because in this splendid insight into this writer’s world we feel his deep moral compassion and outrage against wrongs. He called it out the way he saw it. “How the world presented itself.” What words of wisdom and eloquence would Pat Conroy be saying about how the world is presenting itself today? Eerily, a world not many years since his searing voice left us, but it sure feels that way.

Which is why we can’t help but be struck by how self-effacing Pat Conroy was, always striving to be “good enough,” to be ”bold enough.” Writing that “generosity is the rarest of qualities in American writers,” it seems just from these memorable samplings and anecdotes, Pat Conroy may have been the most generous of them all.

“Reading became the most essential thing about me,” says the avid collector of 8,000 books. So you’ll find heartfelt tributes to so many writers living and gone. He dubs Anne Rivers Siddons “Queen of Southern fiction.” Says Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto “knocked my socks off.” Speaks of Barbara Kingsolver’s work as “eye-popping.” He’s so very proud, as in “shouting it out to the hills” of his wife’s writings; Moonrise a “fabulous novel.” He calls Phillip Roth a “gift to American letters.” Of Ron Rash’s Serena, Conroy glowingly says: “it made me think of the North Carolina mountains like Thomas Wolfe never did.” Then there are the stages he went through when he was “Faulknered” and “Steinbecked” and “Virginia Woolfed” and “Hemingwayed” and “Fitzgeralded.” The list and accolades go on and on.

Pat Conroy was an equal opportunity praiser. Encouraged by a good friend (he maintained so many friendships, some going back forty years) at 68 to give science fiction a try, a genre he’d stayed clear of all his life, prior to meeting George R. R. Martin on a book tour that stopped in Santa Fe. What joy he expresses discovering this imaginative “genius” of a fantasy writer, reading everything Martin wrote beginning with A Game of Thrones. He admires Gay Talese, Nan A. Talese’s husband, a writer of “impeccable prose.” Pat Conroy movingly thanks friends and their spouses alike, writerly and otherwise.

That may be the key to the greatness of his literary style. So much raw emotion soars in his prose. A terrific example of his wordsmithing and enormous gratitude for literature and those who teach it is seen in a passage from a 2007 letter he sent to the Charleston Gazette:

“The world of literature has everything in it, and refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in Saint Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

Pat Conroy’s appreciation for his readership is just as strong. This great writer found “one of the greatest things about being a writer” was engaging with his legion of readers. So much so he encouraged them to bring as many of his books to his signings, which notoriously ran on for hours, contrary to the way these events typically go. For he was a contrarian who mischievously admits he’s “obnoxiously friendly,” so he never ran out of steam for his devoted fans. That makes us feel good, particularly when we’ve read other acclaimed authors complaining about the drudgery of big city tours. Since we can no longer tell Pat Conroy what his books mean to us, A Lowcountry Heart tells us what we meant to him.

Pat Conroy speaks of the beauty of Beaufort, South Carolina as a “cult.” That may be true as Southern Living named Beaufort the best small southern town in 2017But the voters who make up these nominations tend to change their opinions annually, whereas Pat Conroy’s cult will endure year after year.

Lorraine

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The Outrun: A Memoir

Fantastical Nature as Fantastic Therapy (Orkney Islands, Scotland and London, recently): Judge this life-affirming book by its eye-catching cover. Where in the world is the smoothed-over-centuries rocky coast? Hint: somewhere “between the North Sea and the Atlantic.” Who is the tall, slender, modelesque young woman meditating? Hint: she’s an “edge-lander,” someone who grew up near the edge of the world.

Amy Liptrot not only lived on that edge geographically – the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland – but also behaviorally, “always seeking sensation and raging against those who warned me away from the edge.” That edge shaped and defined the author and her award-winning memoir, remarkably soothing for a “wild girl” recovering from alcohol addiction on wild islands. Yet not so surprising for a girl who spent her childhood “living among the elements.” A childhood of “dramatic scenes,” earthy and personal.

Map of Orkney by Mikenorton [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Born during one of her father’s bipolar disorder breakdowns, he endured a mind-boggling fifty-six electroshock treatments. Through it all (her parents divorced), Liptrot felt “always loved.”

The heart of the memoir takes place on the Orkneys two years after the author made it through an intensive rehab program in London, where she hit rock bottom. (Her brother, who attended the same university as she did, tried to help until she needed aggressive intervention.) Today, at thirty-five, she’s five years sober.

Some 20,000 people are estimated to be living on the seventy islands that comprise the Orkney archipelago. Many are sparsely populated or completely uninhabited. Most of the memoir’s Orkney sections are set on the so-called Mainland where the author’s family farm is located, and on one of the northernmost islands, Papay, population seventy. Liptrot chose to spend five winter months on this remote island feeling less alone than she did in London. If you read to experience new worlds, The Outrun will definitely take you to one.

Much of the exotic language – references to the far northern reaches of an ancient landscape, culture, history, and folklore – is otherworldly. A world in which you don’t just see shooting stars in the night skies, you see galaxies, planets (four, unbelievably, on one night), moonbows (rainbows caused by the moon’s light), and the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) or what this poetess of Nature calls Merry Dancers.

Not everything is merry, of course. Liptrot didn’t become sober until thirty (she started drinking at fifteen), when she returned home trading “disco lights for celestial lights.” A steady, uphill process that replaced her dependence on alcohol to feel “more alive” to getting high on her unique “natural surroundings,” birdlife, and sea life. She found she could get “high on fresh air and freedom on the hill” and “that being sober could be kind of a trip and I was just riding it out like a soldier.” A magical, mystery ride.

Our first indication that The Outrun is going to be out-of-the-ordinary is that it opens with a helpful glossary of Orcadian words. Some are farming terms like byre for barn and kye for cattle since Liptrot grew up on a croft farm. More than an unfamiliar word, crofting is a landowning culture that dates back to the late nineteenth century when a farmer rented a small piece of land along with a croft house. (Liptrot’s childhood farmhouse is that old.) These houses seem to have personalities, with names. In fact, croft houses tended to outlive their temporary landowners, so people are more likely to be identified by the names of their croft homes rather than their own.

“I grew up in the sky, with an immense sense of space,” Liptrot tells us, but she felt “limited by the confines of the island and the farm.” That edge-of-the-world farm included uncultivated land called the outrun, described as land “where domestic and wild animals co-exist and humans don’t often visit.” Liptrot spent the first eighteen years of her life walking on the windswept coastal cliffs of this outrun, neighboring one of the most intact New Stone Age archaeological settlements (Skara Brae) anywhere, a World Heritage Site.

Orkney Islands – Most Beautiful

For all its wonder, the Orkney’s are “desolate-seeming.” Liptrot herself was lonely and sad for a very long time, trying to fill a “void” she couldn’t seem to fill, “bottomless pain.” So how could we not rejoice in her eloquent revelations of “filling the void with new knowledge and beauty” upon finding herself as she rediscovers her homeland?

Still a thrill seeker, she swims in the frigid, pounding North Seas with a polar bear club, an unimaginable “cold-water high.” Thanks to technology and the author’s intensely curious mind and “perpetual hope,” she carved out fascinating activities and interests. Became a passionate bird watcher, stargazer, rare cloud studier, astronomy buff, weather-watcher, and tracker of marine traffic, flight radar, tidal charts, sunrise calendars. “In the islands in the age of digital media, we often find that, although it seems contradictory, technology brings us closer to the wild.”

If you’re a birder, conservationist, environmentalist, tuned into the endangerment of species, this memoir is for you. There’s hundreds of bird species on these islands, along with an active, long-standing RSPB – the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds. Like Artic terns, fulmars, puffins, shags, black-backed gulls, gannets, whaups (also called curlews), tysties (or black guillemots), kittiwakes, razorbills, turnstones, golden plovers, snipe. There’s even an Orkney phrase for hunting seabirds: swappin’ for auks. For a while, the author raced to count endangered corncrake birds for the group on Papay. Liptrot compares herself to the corncrakes “clinging to existence,” saying she’s “clinging to a normal life.”

Nature and wildlife are gifts wherever we live on earth. On the Orkneys these gifts are extraordinary and abundant. But it’s Liptrot’s courage, perseverance, amazement, and phenomenal zest for immersing herself in these gifts that enabled her fulfillment and healing, one day at a time. Inspiration we can all cling to.

Lorraine

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