The subtitle to this book is ‘Everything I Want To Tell You (About This Magnificent Life)’, which gives you an indication of what it is about. It’s a memoir written by a high-flying woman who gets diagnosed with terminal colon cancer when she is 34 and who dies two years later: the subtitle is aimed at her young twin boys who she is leaving behind along with her husband. More than that, the book is really an attempt to cram everything she has learned and feels and is going through into words and pages – and to demonstrate there is meaning in the life she has lived.
Which, of course, there is – Kate Gross was a leading civil servant in Tony Blair’s government and went on to be the founding CEO of his Africa Governance Initiative, helping fledgling governments like Rwanda set up the infrastructure they needed. She was clearly ambitious and this shines through in the book, although she grows more aware post-diagnosis of the double-edged sword of that ambition: forgetting to pay attention to friends and occasionally family, but more noticeably to the things she loves doing. The lines that stand out to me from the book are when she says that sometimes our younger version of ourselves knows best; as her time draws to a close, she returns to first loves: swimming, writing, time with friends.
She clearly loves writing and literature and that flows through the book: at times, even, it feels like she is trying to get too much in – an allusion, a literary quote, a reference – but that’s entirely forgivable; would we not all do the same, knowing it’s the only book we will write? It’s a minor quibble in a book that has plenty of poignant moments and learning that resonates. Having been the husband to a wife diagnosed with cancer, I was particularly struck by her concept of the ‘spiral’ – which is about how the close family & a few friends support the individual at the centre, but then they need support from the next circle of friends, and so on. Practical support for the people around the person suffering from the illness can sometimes be the best thing to do.
This isn’t a cancer memoir as such; there’s little medical detail or jargon or information about the treatment she goes through. What there is, and what I was left with after reading it, is a passionate and urgent call to retain our wonder for the world, for the things and the people we love, and to pursue those passions with commitment and eyes open. There are worse things to get from reading a book.