When memoirs are great, they are breath-taking. And what makes a good memoir? For me, honesty, revelation and one that can capture how the individual life fits into wider social changes. That’s what I’m after. I want the personal, yes, but when it brings to life the experiences of a community too, that’s when you know you’re on to something special. And Motherwell by Deborah Orr is very special indeed.
Now, I can’t claim to be too familiar with Deborah’s work as a journalist, so it wasn’t that which drew me to this; more, it was what Deborah was exploring.
Born and raised in Lanarkshire in Scotland, Deborah lived in a working-class community decisively shaped by the nearby steelworks. The cradle of Labour and betrayed by Thatcher, Motherwell was also a community blighted by sectarianism.
And all of this provides the backdrop and the context to Deborah’s childhood. But whilst all this impacted the home, Deborah’s focus in her memoir is critically centred around her fractious, at times even toxic, relationship she had with her parents, and specifically her mother, Win.
“For a time, it felt like only sexual abuse and serious neglect could have a negative psychological impact on a child. A psycho analyst told me, when I was fifty-five, that it was the little things that you needed to watch out for…”
Deborah’s writing is blindingly good. She captures in her mother a woman so at odds with herself, caught up in ‘keeping up appearances’, battling with a lack of agency yet, all the while, misdirecting all her bitterness and anger towards her only daughter. It’s a distressing observation on narcissism and self-loathing, but it also reflects the wider societal battles for women then and now: for Win, her life had to revolve around her husband and when she found that her daughter wanted a freer life, it shook her to her core.
Yet Motherwell is not a depressing book. In places, it’s even brilliantly charming and funny (“We had our own sink, in the kitchen-cum-living room. Open-plan, as it’s called today.”) but it is also immensely profound.
Sadly, Deborah is no longer with us, having died from cancer last year, but her memoir is a brilliant legacy. It is an extraordinarily good memoir.