Book Review: Good Choices

good choices

“But the thing about getting clean … is that you have to get used to living with this tandem, shadow self around you – this other you which could exist”

Good Choices, by Bonny Brooks, tells the story of a thirty-five year old woman, P, who is questioning the direction she has allowed her life to take. P is a recovering junkie who has remained clean now for many years. She has built a métier for herself as a writer and is engaged to be married to a man with assets and education. She is unclear in her own mind, however, if this is the future she truly wants. She believes it would be a good choice, but the cost to her sense of self could be significant.

“This place is gentrified now and so am I. I have a career and an online presence. I have found better cheeses. And now I am sitting here pondering marriage over a green view like some Jane Austin cliché.”

The story is structured in two styles, intermingled. The first is a piece of writing the narrator is putting together, setting out the truth of how she feels about her fiancé. The second tells of her return visit to the rehab facility that helped her with the detox required to achieve recovery, to give a motivational talk to current patients. Here she meets a man she knew from her own time there, a fellow patient she had sex with. The conflict she is suffering comes to the fore when she realises she doesn’t want him to know she is engaged. She ponders the self she presents to men in order to be accepted.

“I’d learned that they didn’t want to listen; what they wanted was to watch themselves being listened to. That ultimately, they would rather a woman that thinks they are funny, than a funny woman. That they would rather a woman who thinks they are clever than a clever woman, and that ultimately, someone with too many thoughts of their own is in their way”

P’s fiancé is also a writer, one with a large and popular online presence. P is aware that he lives much of his life as a performance for his followers, something she has willingly collaborated with. Now, however, she is reminded of what she used to be. Which life, if either, was more honest and satisfying?

“like most of us to some degree, what you want is significance”

The insights offered on choices and relationships resonate. This is an author able to drill through complex issues with eloquent succinctness. The reader is provided with a lens through which an addict views their options: the damage wreaked by a high that is nevertheless desired for its escapism; the knowledge of what is missed when such drugs are eschewed.

The tension ratchets up as P’s life spirals. She wishes to appear responsible, to be accepted within the circles her fiancé inhabits, but isn’t so sure she can be herself in that world.

This is another pocket sized masterpiece to add to the Open Pen novelette series. A book with something to say that is well worth paying attention to.


Book Review: The Outrun


The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot, recently won the 2016 Wainwright Prize, this after being shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize. Although I would not normally be drawn to read memoirs, the judges’ comments persuaded me to pick this one up. I am very glad I did.

Amy was born and raised on a farm on the remote island of mainland Orkney. Her father suffered mental health issues which triggered psychotic episodes so severe he would, from time to time throughout her childhood, be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and removed to a secure unit in Aberdeen. Her mother was a Charismatic Christian whose Church influence and disciplines led to Amy developing a strong aversion to religion. Her parents divorced after her father had an affair.

As an adolescent Amy eschewed what she regarded as a subtle conspiracy to present Orkney as an island paradise. She describes herself as:

“a physically brave and foolhardy child […] Later I plunged myself into parties – alcohol, drugs, relationships and sex – wanting to taste the extremes, not worrying about the consequences, always seeking sensation and raging against those who warned me away from the edge. My life was rough and windy and tangled.”

As a teenager she wanted nothing more than to leave the island, dreaming of glittering success and excitement in London. When she got there she immersed herself in a social whirl fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Over a hedonistic decade her life spiralled out of control. Eventually she determined to undo the damage she was inflicting upon herself and enrolled in rehab, taking steps to manage her alcoholism. She returned to the islands to recuperate, not expecting to stay.

The book opens with this return, with her visiting the farm she grew up on. Her story is told from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic looking back on events that brought her to where she is today. Woven into her tale is the island, its weather and wildlife, history and topography, as much an influence on what she is and was as any people she has known or choices she has made.

It is a study of nature and of life. Amy is aware of how the land was formed, how it affects what it supports with all changing and adapting over time. Yet still there are events that cannot be fully prepared for – asteroids, severe storms, addiction. She writes of the place of which she is a part.

She spends a winter on Papay, a small island north of the mainland, with a population of seventy. She describes how a community such as this gets by:

“Here I have been mixing with people of all ages and backgrounds – we have to – whereas in London I was in a bubble. I went to the city to meet new people, to expand my ideas and social circles, but ended up meeting people more and more like myself. We curated our experiences into ever narrower subsections until we were unlikely to encounter anything that made us uncomfortable.”

Amy’s parents came to Orkney from the South of England so, although she was born there, she was still considered an incomer. With so many young people choosing to leave incomers are now welcomed as necessary to keep the small communities viable. Just as wildlife must adapt to change to survive so too must people.

Amy enjoys the apps and information available via modern technology. She keeps in touch with life beyond the island through the internet:

“Many of them I’ve never met in person but we’ve vaguely followed each other’s lives for years. Often I feel as if my real life is inside the computer while my time back in Orkney and the people I see here are just a temporary intrusion. I know people on Twitter I’ve never met better than people I’ve sat opposite for months at work or people I went to school with.”

Amy watches the skies, swims in the sea and takes long walks. She describes the land and the wildlife she encounters, recalling the history of the place and the changes over time. She considers her own existence alongside that of the birds and sea creatures whose habits and habitats she studies and presents. The story told is poignant and perceptive but it is the quality of the prose which sets this book apart.

The writing is sublime. This is a memoir but also an appreciation of the nature of which we are all a part. There is raw beauty but also acknowledgement that change is inevitable. Amy chose to adapt to survive.