‘The Instant’, by Amy Liptrot


In a city famous for its nightlife, I’ve been waking up early to look for birds of prey.

Following on from the success of her debut novel The Outrun – a deeply personal memoir that explored the author’s return to her roots in Orkney after years spent struggling with addiction – the stakes were high for The Instant. However, though it is sometimes forthright to the point that it can be uncomfortable, Amy Liptrot’s exploration of love, lust and loneliness in Berlin may seem simple at first but, like the city itself, has worlds hiding beneath every word.

At its heart, The Instant is a book about the search for human connection in the modern world. When we exist solely online, how do we know that we are alive at all? As Liptrot recalls:

Last summer I saw a digital ghost. I was walking around a Neolithic stone circle on the island, in the early hours, at the first light of dawn. I lifted my phone to take a photograph of the standing stones silhouetted against the sunrise and, on the camera screen, a dark figure was moving across the heather at the centre of the circle. But when I lifted my eyes, the figure was not there. It seemed to have existed only digitally, on the screen of my internet-enabled device.

Although the author acknowledges that the spiritual world has long been associated with the sacred stone circle, she draws a more direct comparison with the spectres who haunt the digital landscape, searching for meaning in a world that exists and thrives on the fleeting nature of things. The internet is a gift for Liptrot, and other nomadic individuals like her who can work from wherever they choose – floating from one place to another on a whim. The excitement and adventure of travel is the draw, but the lack of something substantial (in the form of relationships, mortgages, roots, stability) is a recurrent catch in the narrative:

The same technology that allows my lifestyle – the flexibility, the short-term, the instant – also enables me to be detached and uncommitted.

The loneliness that drives the author from her home in Orkney is something that the instantaneous nature of the internet cannot provide a long-term solution for – it can only paper over the dissatisfaction and disappointment with the temporary, addictive excitement of internet dating apps, and the links to past locations and lives provided by social media. It cannot stand as a substitute for true human connection, and though the author depicts the young singletons of Berlin descending upon the internet in the early hours of weekend mornings full of hope, the pattern does nothing more than repeat itself week on week.

For Liptrot, the only solution to the search for human connection in the modern world is in nature: the cyclical movement of the moon provides structure for her life in Berlin as she stalks the city at night to find raccoons, haunts abandoned airfields to watch goshawks and hooded crows, and finds rats and rabbits even in the middle of traffic islands. The natural world lives amongst the built-up streets of the German capital, hidden to all but those who pay attention to this other world:

I like knowing that the city is not completely human. Nature is not separate and distant. Wild beasts live amongst us, unreliant, adaptive, among the train tracks and cemeteries and industrial estates.

This fascination with the minutiae of life all around her, this ability to make the reader see the extraordinary in the world of birds, plants and animals, is what truly set her previous novel, The Outrun, apart. In both The Outrun and The Instant, Liptrot successfully uses the natural realm to explore the human condition in a way that is often poignant, melancholic, joyful and carefree all at once. The indefatigable force of nature is the beating heart that guides us through a year in Berlin with the author: the gravitational pull of the moon leads us through the months, and the migration of birds brings us through the seasons. 

The Instant is a deeply personal and meditative memoir exploring loneliness, heartbreak and acceptance against the backdrop of a city that is always changing, always re-inventing itself:

I never saw one but I know the raccoons are there. There are layers to the city that we never see, different wavelengths we could tune into…There are many different ways of living in the same city.

Liptrot shows us that the wilderness is there, lurking at the edges of our world and present within ourselves. The emotional landscapes presented in this book are messy and untamed – desire, longing, fear, heartbreak, despair – reminding the reader that human beings are just animals at heart – capable, of course, of enduring and overcoming, but also of living lives that embrace the multitude of experiences and emotions open to us if we remember to look up, just once in a while, from our screens.

The Instant is published by Canongate.

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Lauren Murray

Lauren Murray holds a PhD in Classics from the University of Edinburgh. She now works as an editor for HarperCollins.

More articles by Lauren Murray

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