On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions

Kate Figes

Published by Virago 28 February 2018

192pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns


Journalist Kate Figes, author of many thoughtful books about family life and relationships, writes here about her sudden diagnosis of metastasized breast cancer just as she was approaching her sixtieth birthday.

The book opens with a description of her unexpectedly emotional reaction to the arrival in her home of a dependent new puppy, Zeus.  It is only after the diagnosis that she understands how vulnerable she must have been feeling.  With grown-up daughters and an established position as a writer, Figes should have been looking forward to a new stage in her life.  Instead, she has to work out a whole new way of surviving.

With what she describes as ‘a chaotic, insecure childhood’ in the background of all her thoughts, it must have been incredibly hard to remain steady.  As if her own fear of death, and regrets about a life to be cut short  –  let alone the tender feelings of her husband and daughters  –  were not enough to deal with, some of her friends are so anxious and nervous that they are unable to find the right words to say, ‘as if I were dead already’.  Others were, and continue to be, fantastically supportive.  Even the innocent enthusiasm of the playful dog becomes a mainstay.

This is a quiet book – unsurprisingly, given what she has been through.  In it, Figes explores self-pity, anger, fear, loss, but also the pleasures of both work and purpose-free activity.  A beach-hut, purchased with money inherited from her German-Jewish grandmother, provides much-needed retreat-space.  We see her navigating her way through all possible appropriate treatment options, including detoxing, and becoming her own expert in the process.  We see her drawing on her own experiences as a child, in mediation work with warring couples.  As time goes by, however, she begins to worry less about the people she loves: ‘They will have to take care of themselves.’  Effectively, she has been ‘forced to accept the emotional truth of being mortal’.

Remission gives Figes what she calls ‘a second chance at brilliant, beautiful life’.  What a wonderful thing to say.

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