Most of the action of Gold, by Chris Cleave, takes place in Manchester, England, over a few days in April, 2012. The main characters are three Olympic-level cyclists who are preparing to qualify for the upcoming Games. The qualifying races are largely a formality: Zoe and Kate are Britain’s reigning women bikers; Kate’s husband, Jack, ranks first among men. But Jack and Kate’s daughter is ill; her leukemia has suddenly returned. A positive prognosis blinds the couple to the child’s deterioration.
Cleave, a newspaper columnist, favours stories with a journalistic hook. He kneads hard data into the malleable substance of human character. With the stunning Little Bee he distilled deadly facts about the exploitation of Nigerian oil into an ominous fable about an African girl.
Gold’s hook is the London Olympics, and its premise is refreshing: Two female athletes battling over an Olympic medal rather than over a man. Cleave thrillingly depicts the power, speed and agility of the female body; a good many woman cyclists will be born of this book. He deftly articulates how professional competition ratchets up the labyrinthine complexity of female friendship.
As a whole, however, the novel falls flat. For all their racing about, the main characters possess a peculiar blandness. That’s true even of Zoe, whose diabolical determination to win causes her to bait Kate, her chief competitor and best friend. Beautiful and frightening, Zoe fills an emotional void with racing, medals, money, fame and sex. Her scandalous behaviour earns her a regular spot in the tabloids. Like some female Byron, Zoe is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Yet she never quite captures our imagination.
Kate, on the other hand, is not that interesting to begin with. She is the quiet heart of a happy family, who uses her medals to anchor the string on the bathroom light. Riding and winning are only passions, up to a point. While this limitation handicaps her on the racetrack, it ought not to handicap her in fiction. After all, what is contemporary fiction if not the celebration of ordinary people?
The dilemma: Cleave often opts to tell, not show. While we see what the characters are doing, and grasp what the characters are thinking, we rarely feel what the characters are feeling. We are told, but are not convinced, of their compulsion for Olympic gold. That’s a big problem. Frequently, one character offers their perceptions of another character’s actions. Why not let the characters reveal the depths of their own emotions?
Cleave does allow this power to ailing eight-year-old Sophie. Isolated and frail, Sophie daily disappears into her imaginary Star Wars galaxy. Her fascination makes us believers: We are all Jedi knights. Back here on earth, she protects her parents from knowing how sick she truly feels. She feigns energy while secretly vomiting into her toy spaceship. She kicks the back of her father’s car seat to seem as annoying as any healthy child. While driving, Jack moves gingerly through traffic; he memorizes every exit for every hospital just in case. Jack and Sophie are joined at the hip and the heart. Here is the gold in Gold: This love between father and daughter.
So it is that aspects of the novel that appear original wind up feeling clichéd, while the aspects that seem clichéd surge with sincerity and power. As it turns out, the women do battle over the same man, namely Jack, who has been intimately attached to both. Jack may be happily married to Kate, but Zoe is still in his head. This complicated affair spins out with dramatic, haphazard verisimilitude.
In Gold, cyclists pump their heart rates to superhuman levels, but cannot manage their hearts in daily life. Time is also an important theme, especially as personified by Tom, the cycling coach. In 1968, Tom missed winning an Olympic medal by 1/10th of a second. Cleave acknowledges such incremental segments of time. His beating hearts and ticking clocks mark moments in which we might live and love full out.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.