Book Review: Gold

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U.S. cover

I feel very cool and ahead of the curve to have a review of Chris Cleave’s new novel, Gold, before it’s official release in July of this year.  The very generous proprietors at Village Lights Bookstore allowed me to dig through their pile of ARCs for this, and unlike every other time they have done this, this time I actually read the book before it was released.

Gold is the story of five people whose lives are connected by the intensely competitive world of Olympic cycling.  Zoe and Kate are at the very top of their athletic form leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London when their coach, Tom, finds out that due to changes in the regulations, only one of these two friends and rivals will be able to compete for the gold.  Kate’s husband, Jack, is also an Olympic cyclist while Kate and Jack’s daughter, Sophie, is battling leukemia.  Add in the tortured and complicated history of Kate, Zoe and Jack together and you have a perfect potential formula for high melodrama, but Gold speeds as quickly away from that literary disaster as a novel can travel.

When I read Little Bee a few years ago, I thought it was a terrific novel up until about two-thirds of the way through.  At that point, I felt like Cleave just kind of gave up.  When you spend a lot of your life doing any kind of writing, you can understand how this happens. The first chapter of my textbook probably got read and re-written at least ten times.  The last chapter of the textbook may have been read through once.  Writing something long–like a novel or a textbook–is like running a race.  You have to make some decisions.  Will you go all out in the beginning and fade away at the end?  Will you save your best stuff for last?  Or will you try to keep a consistent pace throughout?  I read a lot of novels in which it’s clear that the authors were exhausted by the end.  You can almost hear them murmuring between the lines, “My god, just let it be over, already.”  This is not true of Gold, which finishes strong and without veering off course in the way I felt Little Bee did.

The novel is interesting for the insight it gives the reader into the lives of Olympic athletes at a level that is not just autobiographical.  I read Lance Armstrong’s biography, and it was inspiring.  But there’s a difference between a story being told from the inside and from the outside.  Cleave is not an elite athlete, though he did try his hand at cycling for the novel.  There’s something to be said for a novelist who is trying to get inside a certain kind of lifestyle and culture but is not there himself.  There’s something important to be learned sometimes from the distance an outsider can provide.  Cleave pulls this off very well in Gold.

Cleave’s novel juggles the narrative voice of all five of these characters, including Sophie, an eight year old girl.  They all end up quite believable and compelling, especially, I think, Sophie, a child battling with illness and even more so perhaps, with managing her parents’ struggle with her illness.

U.K. cover

I didn’t actually read a summary of the plot or subject of this novel before reading it.  I just dove in.  If I had read what this novel was about–Olympic athletes, competition, a child with leukemia–there’s a good chance I would have turned my nose up and walked away.  “That’s far too much going on there,” I might have said to myself.  But it’s not.  What I’m struck with about this novel is how Cleave mixes the exceptional with the mundane.  Being an Olympic athlete is exceptional.  Battling leukemia is exceptional.  The story of the human beings in this novel is not particularly exceptional.  This felt like a story about a family and people who also happened to be elite athletes or diagnosed with leukemia.  But fist and foremost, it was a story about people, and so you could find yourself identifying with the characters–even with Zoe, the most uber-competitive and isolated of them all.

I don’t know if Cleave would describe his novel this way, but if I had to sum it up in one sentence I’d say this is a novel about family.  This particular family is kind of weird…not everyone is related by blood and some people are related in unexpected ways that are revealed over the course of the novel.  But they are family all the same, struggling with a set of circumstances that from the outside seem exceptional, but from the inside is really just like the things with which we all struggle.

A couple of nice passages:

“Perhaps everyone struggled with the possessive flaw in human memory that hoarded the episodes you most wanted to let go.  Maybe by the time you reached thirty-two, it was a miracle if you could completely forgive your friends.”

“After all the years of speed, the greatest challenge of all was to make yourselves sit still, up here in the dark of the stands.  This was what you learned, after all the racing was over: that the hardest laps were the ones you did after the crowd had gone home.”

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