The discussion of the sport is fascinating, even if you have no interest in cycling. The intensity of the competition between Kate and Zoe drives the plot. Cleave excels at the human, the everyday, and this is where the book is at its strongest. Sophie and Tom are the brightest spots in Gold.
“After [the crash] there was an inquiry and they asked Zoe why she hadn’t stopped riding. She told them she must have been in shock. Really, she didn’t want anyone to see her face. She wanted to keep her helmet on, because its visor hid her eyes, and she needed to ride herself back together. If she could have kept on riding flat out, forever, then she would have.”
– Chris Cleave, Gold
Competition is happening on several different levels in Chris Cleave’s latest work, Gold, and it’s all intense. Determining which is the most important race to win might just require a photo finish. Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, the top two female cyclists in Britain, and everything they share and fight for and fight over: Kate’s cyclist husband Jack, their daughter Sophie, coach Tom Voss, and dreams of winning gold in London 2012—their last Olympics, because of their age.
Cleave, who became a superstar upon publication of Little Bee, a sweeping story of a Nigerian refugee and the deep ties she shares with a British journalist, narrows his dramatic focus here: in the main plot, Kate and Zoe are competing for the single available spot to represent Britain in the Olympics. Kate is the more naturally gifted of the two but is also the more empathetic, more willing to give up what she wants for the good of everyone else. Zoe is driven by demons and is willing to do anything to win, including some fairly dirty off-track tactics to psych out her opponents.
The other central storyline revolves around Kate and Jack’s young daughter, Sophie. Eight years old, Sophie’s unwittingly been the cause of Kate’s lack of Olympic triumph. Kate first stayed home from Athens in 2004 because Sophie is a newborn, and then misses Beijing in 2008 because Sophie is diagnosed with lleukemia. The leukemia goes into remission but comes back again 2012. Sophie deals with her disease through her deep love of Star Wars (original trilogy only—no mention of Episodes I through III, for which I love Cleave). She projects herself into the Star Wars universe, understanding on a normal level that she’s a human girl in England but living in a place in her mind where she has adventures on Bespin, Dagobah, and Endor. In her head, she is Luke Skywalker, a Jedi warrior who wins the day, not a child who is so ill she can’t go to school or ride a bike. With the Star Wars movies on her iPad, she watches “herself” battling Darth Vader or blowing up the Death Star.
These twin focuses drive the plot. Kate and Zoe share a strange bond. I hate to invoke the word “frenemies,” but it is closest to what they are. No one else can understand the effort, energy, and passion they put into their sport, or their drive to defeat each other. They are side by side in almost every major competition from the time they are 19. They compete in the velodrome and out of it, having trouble understanding each other and understanding each other more deeply than anyone else ever could.
Meanwhile, writing a sick child is a difficult tightrope act. The narration needs to be believable, the child needs to be childlike without being cloying or overly angelic. Cleave manages to steer away from Jodi Picoult territory here. Sophie’s voice is genuine, her fears about death almost outweighing her fears about upsetting her parents. Sophie is an expert at reading their expressions, trying to keep them from being too concerned about her. Her little-kid struggle to hide her symptoms and her pain from her parents is heartwrenching.
The discussion of the sport itself is fascinating, as well. I’m not personally interested in cycling and yet every description of the physical and psychological dimensions of the sport were gripping, the strategy behind the sprints riveting, the races themselves leaving me breathless with anticipation and excitement. It reminded me of the movie Men with Brooms—I’m not a fan of curling, but for those 90 minutes I was all about it, and I wanted the home team to win (obligatory adorable Paul Gross image capture). Cleave does something more with his sport plot, though. Not only did he make me care about cycling, but throughout, I was never quite sure which woman I was rooting for more. I suspect I am ever so slightly more on Zoe’s team. I found Kate’s desperate need to give up everything she wants for everyone else more annoying than sympathetic.
Along with competition, the idea of endings pervades the book. As Sophie and her parents fight to keep her from dying, Sophie, Kate, Jack, and Tom are also dealing with the end of their athletic careers. The cyclists are 32 and this is unquestionably their last Olympics. Their bodies will slow down and recover less well as time presses forward, and they can do nothing to outrace this inevitability. Tom, whose entire world is built on coaching “his girls,” will retire after this Olympics. While Kate and Jack have each other and Sophie, Tom and Zoe are at looser ends. Watching Zoe come slowly unhinged makes for high drama, but Tom’s despair at the situation they find themselves in, and his own quiet sadness at his broken-down joints and loss of direction once the girls retire is more human and somehow more touching.
Cleave excels at the human, the everyday, and this is where the book is at its strongest. Sophie and Tom are the brightest spots in Gold. In one scene, Tom is stuck in the bath, his seized up knees keeping him from answering the door. He doesn’t mind if Zoe and Kate find him in the bath but he will not stand for them to see him without his dentures in—the girls don’t know his front four teeth are false, and his vanity exceeds his pain. It’s a beautifully human and identifiable moment. Sophie and Tom mirror each other in their less glorious struggles, and for me they were the most interesting characters because of it.
One can’t help comparing this book to its predecessor, Little Bee, whose scope and consequences far outweighed the issues at stake in Gold, and whose narrative and characterization are definitely more polished. Some of the other drama in Gold veers too much toward soap-operatic. The story here is tight, looking at relationships amongst the five main characters and two major competitions (one in the velodrome, one for Sophie’s life). Several plot elements and twists have been heaped on top of this and are unnecessary for a good story and distracting. Sophie and her illness somehow always being a problem in an Olympic year is frustrating, and the amount of energy the characters put into melodrama outside the velodrome seems inauthentic. The ending is too pat in some ways, tying things up a bit more cleanly than need be. As well, the writing is at times clunkier than I would expect from Cleave, favouring run-on sentences and overly purple prose. And Kate and Zoe at times verge on caricatures, Kate overly saintly and Zoe overly self-promoting. Jack is fairly bland, just a decent guy caught in a few bad situations and few great ones.
In the end, in a more meta narrative this is also a competition of Chris Cleave against himself: Gold against Little Bee. Little Bee is the easy win, but Gold is nonetheless worthwhile. There’s a lot to like in this fast-paced read, a lot to cheer for. I just wish Cleave had trusted himself a bit more to write a story of five people struggling against themselves without adding on unnecessary drama.
Three out of five blue pencils
Gold, by Chris Cleave, published in Canada by Bond Street Books, © 2012