The Instant by Amy Liptrot review – in Berlin, looking for love and raccoons | Amy Liptrot


Amy Liptrot’s first book, The Outrun, chronicled her retreat from London and alcoholism to the islands around Orkney, where she had grown up on a cliffside farm. The book became a prizewinning bestseller, and her new essayistic memoir, The Instant, picks up where it left off, finding Liptrot in her mid-30s, sober, strong and single.

It’s acute lonesomeness that drives her back to the mainland and from there to Berlin. She’s seeking the juvenescence that she’s started to sense is slipping through her fingers, looking for excuses to shed layers and put on party dresses again. What she really wants is a boyfriend. “I was embarrassed by my conventional desires,” she admits. “I had hoped I was more resourceful and interesting than to want a boyfriend.”

Much of what she will learn in Berlin will be familiar to anyone who, similarly untethered, has embraced the nomadic ways of the “lifestyle migrant”. For instance, don’t eat pomegranate in bed in a sublet apartment. It’s a privileged if penurious existence and, for the most part, Liptrot remains in an English-speaking bubble. Even so, she makes something distinctive of this chronically hip city. Her Berlin smells of sausages and pollen. It’s scored by invisible networks of dog pee. Listen and you’ll hear the songs of cuckoos and nightingales, though good luck spotting one of its raccoon population, a beast whose feral adaptability makes it an elusive talisman for Liptrot.

Meanwhile, she diligently searches for love, setting off on first date after first date. It’s a quest that can be surprisingly hard to write about – or at least write about well. It’s rarely heroic and inevitably entails flesh wounds to the pride if not spears to the heart, resulting in moping and tears. And because all a person ultimately has to offer is themselves, self-absorption is hard to dodge. (Liptrot doesn’t even try, instead borrowing from Andy Warhol’s diaries and referring to everyone else in the narrative by the initial “B”.)

Inevitably, there’s a lot of waiting too. In addition to birdwatching and raccoon-stalking, Liptrot fills the longueurs with musings on the role of technology in our lives. While it’s a given that dating apps have gamified human relationships – that we binge on social media “likes” in lieu of more nourishing connections and are perpetually distracted – she does bring a certain wistful poetry to the pitfalls of “the endless scroll”. (Appealingly, she also happens to have an app on her phone that allows the moon to text her when it’s full.)

At last, along comes a man with whom she feels the vibration of yearned-for promise – “a flash in the eyes, a dark deep”. Is it love? That would be telling. “I have a tendency to see the story rather than the reality,” she confesses at one point, but who among us doesn’t when it comes to romance? Crucially, if that instinct leads her astray, it will also rescue her.

While it lacks the stark transcendence of The Outrun, The Instant does evocatively capture – and indeed honour – much that we try to shrug off when it comes to the often calamitous pursuit of lasting intimacy: the self-pity, the obsessive (and, yes, addictive) cyberstalking, the airport crying jags. Sometimes it’s enough for a book to simply remind you that you’re not alone.

The Instant by Amy Liptrot is published by Canongate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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