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Motherwell: Deborah Orr’s artful and authentic parting words

Book review: The late journalist’s hugely accomplished debut feels as if there was much more to come

Motherwell: A Girlhood
Motherwell: A Girlhood
Author: Deborah Orr
ISBN-13: 978-1474611459
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Guideline Price: £16.99

There are all kinds of reasons to write a memoir and most writers never settle exclusively on a singular motivation. For some, it’s curiosity about a subject; for others it’s catharsis or karmic score settling.

Journalist Deborah Orr always wrote about other people – famous interviewees over the course of her esteemed media career. To pivot from two-page features to book-length self-examination requires not just commitment, but a new set of skills.

Learning to look closely at one’s own life, and the people around you is a kind of displacement. She acknowledges this early in the book: “Once you’re ‘remembering’ things from early in your life, your mind can’t be trusted at all. Yet old memories shape you, whether they’re real, imagined, a dream, a photograph, passed on through your own perfidious filter.”

She is keenly aware of the pitfalls of memoir – misremembering, misrepresentation. Memoir is not just about recall: it may have its linguistic roots in “memory”, but assembling the parts of a story is more than an act of rearrangement. Craft is central, to ensure it avoids becoming an information dump, and a memoir demands many of the same elements a novel does: characters, story, setting.


In Motherwell Orr begins with her childhood in that Scottish town, before documenting her teens and 20s, but she’s not bound by chronology – occasionally fast forwarding to her marriage, the death of her parents and the sad rite of clearing out her childhood home.

In examining her life, Orr is seeking illumination: about who she was as a child and what moulded her into the adult she is today. The answer – and the throughline of the book – is largely her relationship with her parents John and Win, particularly her mother.

Familial competition

A memoirist has to tread carefully through familial minefields, avoiding both sentimentality and hagiography, of which there is little here where her parents are concerned.

Orr’s father worked in the local steel factory and once saved a man’s life. Instead of feeling like a hero, he is traumatised and because Motherwell had a “macho, patriarchal culture”, admitting as much would be humiliating. It is part of the reason Orr believes he consistently sided with Win, whose complicated relationship with her daughter is the backbone of the book. Their marriage was solid, if sexless, “a pair of human chastity belts”, and Orr pivots deftly between critique and respect for her parents.

All relationships contain a kernel of conflict, the hackneyed thin line between love and hate. Orr’s clashes with her mother begin early, with a Freudian triangulation of competition between them for John’s attention. Her mother’s generation were motivated by marriage, but “in some part of my mother’s life, stuffed down and denied, there was an unwelcome cognisance that her life had been limited by her sex and her class”.

When Orr announced on her wedding day to the writer Will Self that she wasn’t changing her name, her furious mother spent years addressing all correspondence to her as Mrs William W Self. In writing this story, Orr is attempting to unpick her mother’s frequent cruelty (“At least I’m not as plain and ugly as you”), and assess its impact.

Win competes in the way that insecure women do, using their insecurities to lash out at those they judge more talented or comfortable in their own skin. The huge shame here is that it’s between mother and daughter, but in identifying the kaleidoscope of any one life, Orr counters this by saying that her mother could also be “loving, attentive, fun”.

‘No baddie’

From her own life, there are tough revelations: school bullying that haunts her decades on, and encounters with men that she is only now ready to re-label as rape or assault. But Orr’s doggedness is apparent throughout. She weighs up and evaluates, often directing some of the criticism inward. There’s a sense that writing things down has answered many questions.

“There is no baddie in this story. The baddie is patriarchy. The baddie is narcissism. The baddie is trauma. The baddie is human fear, passed down in its doleful paralysis from generation to generation.”

At the end of the book, Orr is comforted by thoughts of Scotland and nature. “I will go back to Motherwell. I still walk the countryside of my childhood in my thoughts.” She details a decade marked by crisis: her parents’ deaths, her marriage ending and subsequent PTSD.

Motherwell is artful and authentic, a hugely accomplished debut that feels as if there was much more to come. Orr didn't make it back to Motherwell, as her breast cancer returned, and she died last October – but not before she'd held the proof of this book in her hand. Her journalism career had been stellar and her time as a writer was just beginning. What a high – even though we mourn – to end on.
Sinéad Gleeson is the author of Constellations

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson

Sinéad Gleeson is a writer, editor and Irish Times contributor specialising in the arts