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A sharp, funny portrayal of editor's unhappy families

Memoir: Motherwell: A girlhood

Deborah Orr

Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, €23.79

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Author Deborah Orr with her then  husband Will Self at an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London in 1998

Author Deborah Orr with her then husband Will Self at an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London in 1998

Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

Motherwell: A Girlhood

Motherwell: A Girlhood

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Author Deborah Orr with her then husband Will Self at an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London in 1998

A trailblazing editor at The Guardian magazine - the first woman and first member of the working class to oversee its publication - the late Deborah Orr is a familiar figure from her byline image which shows a long-haired woman with an approachable smile.

Orr, who died of breast cancer last October, edited the Saturday magazine for several years before becoming an opinion columnist for the paper. Contrary to that rather demure headshot, she had an intimidating reputation. One former colleague described her as an "abso-bloody-lutely terrifying" boss who turned up at the office, "with a mass of hair, fag ablaze".

Motherwell reveals the source of that persona - which was a melange of fierce intelligence, introspection and angst. Orr grew up in a working class Scottish town surrounded by natural beauty, a girl much loved by her family but held back by its dysfunctional dynamics.

She was ambitious, driven, and determined to overcome the plentiful obstacles that were cast in her path. As Orr puts it, her parents' efforts "to staunch my conceit … made me all the more eager for praise - hungry for it, yet simultaneously distrustful of it".

Thus began a life of success and compromise, lows and soaring highs.

"I've done some sh*tty, weak, thoughtless and even immoral things in my time," she confides.

Yet the most shameful memories stem from her youth. One was when, aged 14, she stole her mother's pale-pink nail varnish and used it all up. Her mother was furious, calling her a liar, a sneak, a coward, and Orr fled the house in hysterics.

"Some people can turn a drama into a crisis," she writes. "My parents could turn anything into a crisis, and frequently did."

The book revolves around traumatic moments like this which - she suggests - set the pattern for later, when she tolerated relationships underpinned by infidelity and distrust.

Motherwell is different from other memoirs in that it focuses on Deborah's girlhood and the life in her home town, which relied on steelworks for its economic survival.

Her father had endured an impoverished childhood, never received an education and had been injured at work; her mother was a talented artist whose potential had been stifled.

When she was 17, her mother told Deborah of her hopes for her daughter: that she would live with her parents until she got married and then move to wherever her husband wanted to be.

Although Orr escaped such a fate, it wasn't without scars. She obtained top marks and accepted a place at the posh St Andrews University, greatly against her parents' wishes. But she never fitted in there; people couldn't understand her accent and she was just as bewildered by her fellow students: "I didn't know why people kept declaring that they'd 'probably get a tutu' or that they'd 'be happy with a tutu'… What the hell?"

She was sexually assaulted and raped while at St Andrews. Needless to say, reporting the incidents wasn't an option, and the men got away unscathed.

Inevitably, a focus on her youth begs questions about Orr's adult life, and throughout the book, Orr whets our curiosity for what happened later. She mentions but does not detail her ascent up the greasy poll of media-land, where most of her peers were middle class and had studied at Oxbridge; nor does she expand on her relationship with her brother, troubled from the start; or, as some commentators have noticed, her marriage to the writer Will Self, which ended just two years ago.

It is understandable and perhaps admirable that Orr doesn't retread all this territory. She refers to Self just a few times and never by his full name - before their marriage as the father of her unborn child who got caught taking heroin while flying on John Major's private plane; and, later on, the husband who refused to read a requested poem at Orr's mother's funeral because "such doggerel was beneath his dignity".

One of the central topics of this book is the concept of narcissism, and Orr returns to it so often (the word features 90 times in total) that it could nearly be in the title. Although it's clear that Orr's ex-husband lurks behind this preoccupation, he wasn't the only narcissist in her life.

While she absolves her mother of being a true narcissist with no empathy for others, she suggests that the quality animated their relationship nonetheless. In any case, she argues, once you look for it, narcissism is everywhere - behind patriarchy, racism and other forms of prejudice, identity politics, and the flourishing of men like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein.

This memoir crafts a vivid portrayal of family life in its worst and (if not best) its better moments, and points to how different forms of trauma play out and repeat in adulthood.

Motherwell is a serendipitous title because it allows her to cast doubt on her mother's ability to "mother well," and, more obliquely, on her own.

Orr's voice is sharp, funny, warm and memorable, and as truth-telling and unyielding towards others as she is towards herself.

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