TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 7 June 2012
Novels that feature sport often put people off reading them, particularly if you are not au fait with the sport in question. However, while the characters in Chris Cleave's "Gold" are athletes, specifically cyclists aiming for the 2012 London Olympics, it's more about the characters themselves. In fact, if you are looking for a book to read to avoid the brouhaha of the Olympics this year but still want to get a taste of what all the fuss is about, this would be a superb choice.
Cleave isn't subtle in tapping into the emotions of the reader. His main character, Zoe, is an emotionally damaged athlete with two Olympics under her belt already, partly because her main rival, Kate, who is the more naturally gifted athlete has, for various reasons, been forced out of the previous two Olympics. Zoe has sheer bloody-mindedness on her side though while Kate is an example of those nice people who don't finish first. For both of them, this is their last chance for Olympic glory. It's the last games too for their coach, Tom, a former Olympian himself whose obsession to the sport has also caused him to let real life pass him by. Kate's partner, Jack, has also grown up with the three cyclists and is a winning athlete in his own right.
Kate and Jack also have a young daughter, the plucky and charming Sophie, who is suffering from Leukemia, and is the main cause for Kate missing the two previous games, and whose battle for life threatens to do the same again. I'm usually slightly wary of novels that rely on an ill child to generate emotion but she's a terrific character in her own right and her way of coping by imagining herself as Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars" is nicely done. The inference that for Sophie finishing first in terms of survival is similar to the athlete's obsession with "gold" is clear.
Yes, there's some cycling descriptions and strategy here, but not enough to put the non-cycling fan off the book. What does come over superbly well though is the levels of dedication that these athletes have to pursuing their goals. More than physical differences, it is this mental resolve that set them apart from what they refer to as mere "civilians". Zoe in particular behaves quite atrociously at times, and yet there is something endearing about her throughout. Of course, a seriously ill child is a dose of reality that it's hard to ignore and it is this battle between real life and the athletic world that is so striking. As I said, subtly is not Cleave's forte. Playing with the reader's emotion though very much is, which he achieves by creating strong characters that you genuinely care about.
Cleave's style is highly readable, with plenty of humour and some wry similes and metaphors, some of which are a little odd, like "the seagulls sounded like angels who'd lost their jobs", but for the most part they work well.
The bulk of the action takes place over just three days in April 2012, although there are flashbacks to earlier phases in each of their lives. The action builds nicely and there is a clear arc of a story which gathers pace towards the end of the book. Cleave ensures that whether the reader emotionally responds to sadness, triumph in the face of adversity or just nice things happening, he will catch you at some point in this emotional roller coaster. It would take a cold heart not to be moved at some point in this book. Just one word of caution. There's a slightly dubious moral decision at the end of the book that is rather glossed over which you may or may not agree with.
Personally, I'm not sure that the publisher's blurb that "usually this is where we'd tell you what this book is about. But with Chris Cleave, it's a bit different" serves the author well. While most of us take these things with a pinch of salt, it does rather build expectations to an level that is hard to sustain. It suggests that it's a book that is very different from others in style and it isn't. It's just a very good book about success and what people will give up to achieve it. And for those who will be watching the games this summer, it will make you think about the athletes with a new level of admiration for what they sacrifice for glory.