‘Did you get what you wanted from this life?’

book_reviewIt seems a little crass to review a book that – as Kate frequently reminds us – is intended to be given to her two sons when they are old enough to read it. However, as she also chose to publish this short collection, I suppose it is fair enough to consider how it works for a reader who didn’t know Kate. Facing terminal cancer in her early thirties, Kate Gross was surprised to discover that, alongside everything her illness was taking away from her, it also gifted her the freedom to do the things that she most loved; one of which was writing. Kate’s straightforward but elegant prose demonstrates just what a loss it was that she didn’t write more, sooner, although her glittering career could hardly be described as a waste of time. In Late Fragments, she explores the different phases of her life and what she has chosen to prioritise, ultimately both grieving for everything that is being denied her but concluding ‘I’ve had a great life’.

This book perhaps read slightly differently to me than it will for other readers, because there was an odd synchronicity between my life and Kate’s at times, although I have been fortunate enough so far not to have experienced her horrific bad luck with health. Early in the book, I realised, like me, that she attended Hayesfield School, which I recognised not from its description as an all-girls comprehensive in Bath but from the fact that the dozy physics teacher she remembers, Mr Whale, was still there in my day! I started at Hayesfield four or five years after Kate left, but her depiction of the school is spot-on, from its ‘particularly rank smell of female sweat and cruelty’ to the fact that ‘there was something profoundly uncool about being clever, at least at my school.’ Like Kate, when I went to university, despite my middle-class background, ‘we products of the state school system seemed chippier, more aggressive, less polished, perhaps less comfortable with ourselves.’ Kate attended Keble College, Oxford, where my husband is currently a lecturer. Later in her life, she moved to Bateman Street in Cambridge, where I lived for a year as a masters’ student from 2008-9, and as far as I can work out, almost certainly passed her on the street, if not in the Botanic Gardens, where I spent a lot of my time. These random connections perhaps made this book especially personal for me.

However, I think there is a lot in Late Fragments that will speak to a wide readership. Kate’s musings on motherhood and career are wise and honest, without the implied criticism of other people’s choices that you find in so much writing on the subject. The chapter on her family, and how differently her parents are handling their grief about the situation, was heartbreaking, and I also enjoyed the chapter on female friendship. Kate also writes beautifully about her relationship with her children and with her husband, Billy. Indeed, the quality of the book of the whole was so high that it was a real shame that there was one section that marred it for me. The one period of her life where Kate’s insight seems to have failed a little is her teenage years, where she disparagingly refers to herself and her peers as ‘grubs’ and muses ‘It’s lucky, really, that I didn’t die in 1992. I don’t think people would have had the happiest of memories of me.’ This is part of a wider trend that I’ve noticed in the analysis of teenage diaries (I will blog about this when I get hold of mine!), where adolescent emotions are never taken seriously and usually mocked and caricatured, unlike the treatment of childhood, which is generally remembered with more reverence. While this is not to say that we can’t laugh at our teenage selves – of course we can! – I wished that Kate had analysed her ‘grub’ phase with as much compassion as she shows throughout the rest of this book.

I would certainly recommend Late Fragments wholeheartedly; it is a well-written, thought-provoking and intelligent read that is often sad, but never depressing.

I received a free copy of this book via the Amazon Vine Programme in exchange for an honest review.

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