by Amy Liptrot
Canongate Books, 2023
Reviewed by Olga Katsovskiy
“We can never catch a moment in time. We have to surrender to the instant, open to experience it as it happens with no expectation or permanence.” (Amy Liptrot, The Instant, 2023, p. 158)
Amy Liptrot’s The Instant is a poignant memoir documenting a year of her life abroad in Berlin, searching “for some kind of completion” (p. 101) in the throes of love sparked by a fleeting internet match. She describes herself as an elder millennial dependent on her online life for survival, slowly learning to sharpen her distance vision as she looks up from her electronic devices. This memoir is a sequel to her debut The Outrun, where she returns home to remote Orkney Islands in Scotland to recover from alcohol addiction at age thirty. The Instant is my first exposure to this author’s work and I literally couldn’t put it down, reading it entirely in one sitting. Amy’s writing is honest and refreshing.
This is a memoir about climate change, the cushiony privilege of a “digital nomad” lifestyle as well as its less glamorous side, but primarily a story of finding inner peace after heartbreak. I enjoyed the observations of the migratory birds in Berlin, the hooded crows in grey “capes”, the goshawk’s thriving in the trees, and the urban racoons Amy sought after. I am in awe of her fascination with nature and wildlife. She purchased expensive binoculars to spy on birds, and bicycled in the dark with a headband flashlight searching for the elusive racoons, fearlessly approaching suspicious characters in Gorlitzer Park to chat about these animals. She desperately wanted to see a racoon out in the city, but never encounters one. Before leaving Berlin, she paints a racoon in the stairwell of the apartment block (p. 169). The racoons are an interesting analogy of love, something she felt deeply out of reach.
Structurally, the book is divided into sections with headings revolving around the cycles of the moon. Diary entries are interspersed, painting an intimate portrait of her love affair and the heartbreak that followed. In a beautiful interview in The Guardian, Amy mentions she had always wanted “to write in [her] diary for a living.” I love that sentiment. When I initially found this book I hesitated, thinking it might be about savvy millennials and the climate crisis. I like that she redirected her focus to the romantic relationship highlighting a very formative period of her adult life.
There is a passage where she struggles to “get over it” that caught my attention:
“I have all this love for him and I don’t know what to do with it. What people are telling me is that I have to destroy it. I have to destroy something good and beautiful” (p. 147).
It reminded me of a scene from Fleabag, a British comedy series I have never watched but keeps popping up on my Instagram “Explore” page. In the scene, the protagonist holds her hand on her chin, her mouth trembling, her heartbroken eyes beginning to well up with tears:
“I don’t know what to do with it, with all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now.”
The fact that I have not watched the series but can be moved by a scene recommended to me through an algorithm is telling. How much of what the internet knows about us is true? Amy grapples with many questions like these about the blurred lines between real life and online life. In a nightclub in Berlin where photography is prohibited, I imagine she felt the absence of her cell phone like walking without holding a lover’s hand. She writes, “There are many different ways of living in the same city” (p. 174). If an experience is not photographed and documented, did it happen? I’d say most certainly, yes, that is where memoirs are born.