I was very sad to see that Deborah Orr died in 2019 of cancer when I was doing some googling after reading this book. It’s always so strange to be in someone’s point of view reading their memoir and picturing them alive, and then realizing that this is the only book they’ll ever write. Cancer really robs the world of so much infinite potential. Motherwell is Orr’s memoir of growing up in the titular steel mill town of Motherwell during the 60s and 70s. I read a quote that called this book “raw” and I would agree with that description. It reads as almost stream of consciousness and with a very present and immediate voice that feels like you’re having dinner with her and she’s narrating her memories and stories directly from her mind. This gives the book its power. Motherwell also serves as an exploration of the damage that patriarchal shame-based culture does, and as a psychological look at her family’s interpersonal relationships.
Orr’s writing is the real draw here, along with her insights on narcissism and gender/feminism. I always enjoy a grim British memoir and this definitely fit the bill, with a good look at the collapse of Scottish heavy industry and the seeds of the drugs/housing estate crises that would consume the following generations of young people. I liked her discussion of dissociation and how if you are seeing your memories as if you’re looking at yourself from the outside, that’s dissociation, which hadn’t occurred to me before. Another thought provoking bit here was “The heritage industry moves in when people don’t know who they are any more and have to focus on who they were instead.” The only time I found myself taken aback was when she wrote “Young woke women now tell old white feminists that they are out of touch,” which seemed like a bit of a random attack out of the blue in context. However, this is the one occasion she says anything like that so I settled back down. I do wish she’d pushed herself even more to examine her father in more depth, but I think the thrust of the book was so much about her mother and her feelings about her father were so complicated that I can understand why she didn’t.
All in all, a worthwhile read, especially if you’re interested in British post-WWII society and complicated family drama.
Warnings for: child sexual abuse, physical child abuse, emotional abuse, rape, physical assault, cancer, abortion descriptions, medical trauma, C-PTSD