In Motherwell: A Girlhood (W&N), the late author and columnist Deborah Orr reflects on her childhood in the eponymous Scottish steel town and her relationship with her formidable mother, Win. Alongside excoriating descriptions of Win’s controlling ways, Orr vividly evokes Scottish working-class life in the 1970s, and the shifting social and economic values that would ease her path to university and a career in the media. The author, who underwent treatment for cancer for the second time in 2019, died before the book was published, but her wish “to take charge, to take complete control, of my family, in my own words” was realised nonetheless.
Charlie Gilmour’s Featherhood (W& N) and Gavanndra Hodge’s The Consequences of Love (Michael Joseph) deal with themes of parental failure. In the former, Gilmour finds comfort in the company of an abandoned baby magpie while recalling how his father, the poet Heathcote Williams, left him and his mother when he was an infant, and subsequently rebuffed his son’s attempts to get to know him. Gilmour made headlines in 2010 when he was photographed swinging from the Cenotaph during a student protest. “It wasn’t the glorious dead I wanted to attack that day,” he writes, “but the glorious dad.” The Consequences of Love, meanwhile, is an elegant study of grief and memory that begins with the death of Hodge’s younger sister, Candy, aged nine. On becoming a mother of two girls, the author realised she had no recollections of Candy beyond the moment of her death. So she seeks to fill the “swirling, vertigo-induced void” by telling her family’s story, involving her drug-addicted father, who sold heroin to rich Chelsea layabouts, and her alcoholic mother who turned to religion to blot out her trauma.
Mohsin Zaidi’s A Dutiful Boy (Square Peg) begins on the day its author brings his boyfriend home to meet the family. The story then jumps back in time to chronicle his parents’ move from Pakistan to east London and his upbringing in a conservative Muslim community. At 14, Zaidi realises he is gay and, fearful of his parents’ disapproval, resolves to keep his sexuality a secret. His book challenges Muslim homophobia as well as the racism of the London gay scene – some dating site profiles warn: “No Asians.” Yet Zaidi’s writing is underpinned by compassion and an understanding that acceptance can be a slow process, even for those who love you.
House of Glass (4th Estate) is a stunning family memoir by Hadley Freeman that examines themes of identity and belonging as it pieces together the histories of the Glass siblings, the youngest of whom was her grandmother, Sala. Their stories are varied, vivid and heartbreaking, each unfolding during one of the most traumatic periods in Jewish history.
Terri White’s raw and remarkable Coming Undone: A Memoir (Canongate) describes her efforts to keep a lid on her childhood trauma while seeking comfort and escape in alcohol. Born in Derbyshire to a teenage mum, her early years were shaped by extreme poverty, violence and sexual abuse by two of her mother’s boyfriends. In adulthood, a job in New York sends her into freefall and White spares no detail as she recalls her unravelling.
In Hungry (Mudlark), the restaurant critic Grace Dent tells of her early life in Carlisle, and her relationship with her father, who would cook her “sketty” – his name for spag bol – when she was a child. Tender and witty, the book is both a love-letter to George, whose eventual decline from dementia she recounts, and the food that brought them together.
Broken Greek (Quercus) is Pete Paphides’s funny and evocative account of his Brummie childhood as the offspring of Greek-Cypriot parents, and his love affair with music. It starts in 1973 when the author, then aged four, stops speaking to anyone apart from close family. He never stops listening, however. Along with the sound of his parents’ bickering, he finds a new soundtrack: pop music. Paphides, a journalist and radio DJ, is brilliant on the formative impact of his favourite bands and the ways music can help us make sense of the world.
Notions of home are poignantly explored in Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence (Michael Joseph), the sequel to the award-winning The Salt Path, as the author adjusts to living with a roof over her head after a period of financial hardship followed by homelessness. Winn moves to Cornwall, where she takes on a piece of farmland for rewilding. Her evocations of weather, landscape, the sea and her love for her partner, Moth, who has an incurable neurodegenerative condition, are wonderful.
For the author Sarah M Broom, home was once New Orleans East where her widowed mother, Ivory Mae, bought a house in 1961 with her late husband’s life insurance. Broom’s award-winning debut, The Yellow House (Corsair), is a history of a house, a family and a neighbourhood brought low by neglect, racism and inequality. The youngest of 12 children, she had moved away from the city by the time Hurricane Katrina hit, but she paints a harrowing picture assembled from the memories of her family. Their heartbreak is compounded by the city’s treatment of its residents: Mae’s house was eventually demolished without her knowledge, the notification letter having been sent to the abandoned property.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press) explores the author’s obsession with an 18th-century poem by an Irish noblewoman. A genre-defying blend of memoir and translation, flights of fancy and everyday domesticity, it draws out connections across the centuries for a captivatingly original meditation on creativity and motherhood.
In Inferno (Bloomsbury), Catherine Cho documents her experience of post-partum psychosis, which led her to see devils in her son’s eyes. Cho was eventually separated from her baby and institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital, where she took copious notes on her progress and the comings and goings on the ward. Her book veers away from being a heart-warming tale of triumph over trauma; it lays out, with frightening clarity, the spiralling pressures of new motherhood and the unvarnished reality of mental breakdown.
Parenting looms large in the columnist and writer Caitlin Moran’s More Than a Woman (Ebury), which examines being a woman and a feminist in middle age. Eye-wateringly candid and wildly entertaining, it reflects on looking after elderly parents, anal sex, smear tests, Botox, big bums and the daily to-do list. But it’s the chapters on raising teenagers that provide the book’s emotional heft as they tell of her daughter’s struggle with an eating disorder, and the parental fear, panic and disorientation that ensued.
Sophie Heawood’s riotously funny The Hungover Games (Cape) looks at unplanned parenthood, from pregnancy and childbirth to the chaotic infant years, and the withdrawal from her life of her child’s father, known here as the Musician. Heawood casts herself as the hapless goofball, careering from one calamity to the next, but there is wisdom and poignancy amid the self-mockery as she contemplates a new way of living and finding love where she never knew it existed.
Five best celebrity memoirs of 2020
The Meaning of Mariah Carey
by Mariah Carey (Macmillan)
“I have seen, I have been scared, I have been scarred, and I have survived,” writes Carey in this rags-to-riches tale that delves beneath the diamond-encrusted public persona to reveal a woman who has overcome childhood neglect, racism, mental illness and abuse. A twinkling humour underpins her account of her post-stardom years in which she acknowledges her “propensity for extraness”, and throws fabulous shade at J-Lo without once mentioning her name.
To the End of the World
by Rupert Everett (Little, Brown)
The actor’s third memoir is both a caustic reflection on the iniquities of show business and an account of his decade-long efforts to bring Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince to the screen. The writing is as sparkling as the anecdotes are riotous: he stands up Joan Collins for dinner and throws up on Colin Firth. All the while, he channels his hero, Wilde, whom he describes as “the patron saint of anyone who ever made a mess of their life”.
No Time Like the Future
by Michael J Fox (Headline)
Life was already tough for the star of Back to the Future, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 29. Then, in 2018, he had surgery to remove a tumour from his spine. In this moving, often funny memoir he reveals how he regained his sense of optimism, and reflects on age, family and living with a disability.
Just Ignore Him
by Alan Davies (Little, Brown)
While the comedian’s first memoir was a larky look at his teens, this second one bravely tackles the parts its predecessor missed out. An intimate, open-hearted book, Just Ignore Him tells of the “quiet, librarial molestation” Davies endured by his father from the age of eight to 13, and the bullying and gaslighting that ensured his silence. Davies was 51 when he finally went to the police, by which time his father’s ill health meant he would never stand trial.
by Matthew McConaughey (Headline)
A gloriously bonkers effort from the Oscar-winning star of Dallas Buyers Club: it is not a memoir, he assures readers, but an “approach book”. In between anecdotes about warring parents, travelling, fame, films and debauchery, Greenlights bulges with lists, photos, poems and notes scrawled with fortune-cookie homilies, all part of his basic philosophy that he likes to call “livin’ – there’s no ‘g’ on the end of livin because life is a verb.”
• Browse the best books of 2020 at the Guardian Bookshop.