Review: Gold

Chris Cleave's Gold spins a tire-ripping velodrama out of two subjects underrepresented in novels: the head-games of Olympic track cycling and the heart-splitting demands faced by female athletes who try to balance motherhood and elite competition in their peak physical years. Despite its unusual subject matter, Gold is not an esoteric novel; readers who don't know an individual pursuit from a keirin will be able to feel the excitement in Cleave's clearly depicted racing scenes and readers who are devotees of high-stakes emotional triangles will find much to untangle.

While the disparate athletic and relationship motivations of lone ranger Zoe Castle and her married teammates Kate Meadows and Jack Argall are complicated by a long-running friendship/rivalry, the novel's deepest human resonance is pumped up by eight-year-old Sophie Argall, whose reliance on a Star Wars fantasy life as she strives to be a champion leukemia patient is depicted with beguiling tough-tenderness.

Cleave shares Gold's stream-of-consciousness perspective among all his main protagonists, as well dipping into the mind of their crusty Australian coach, to yield a many-spoked view of what makes them surge or fall back. The timeline of Gold spans three Olympic Games, beginning with a short set piece in Athens before it focuses on the three athletes' preparations for London 2012, when Zoe, Kate and Jack are all 32 and vying for what is probably their final chance to compete for gold. Cleave, impressed by the physical attributes of his racers, touches frequently on the superhuman theme and how the cyclists meld back into everyday life after performing incredible feats in the velodrome. Gold is further enriched with scenes from the past, including a compelling flashback to the trio's first encounter at a youth selection tournament when they were 19, a high-tension Beijing Olympics and a late plot revelation whose tardiness feels only slightly disingenuous.

To an American reader, the celebrity of British track cyclists might seem far-fetched, and to any cycling fan the dearth of doping references might seem blinkered. Sophie's wisdom (surely the name is intentional) seems one precocious level too far, even for a child-medical-warrior, and the plot has to ratchet through a lot of gears, but Gold is still well worth the ride for its contextual details, its generous supply of dramatic scenes and the steadiness of Cleave's storytelling pulse. --Holloway McCandless, blogger at Litagogo: A Guide to Free Literary Podcasts

Shelf Talker: The author of Little Bee returns with a heart-racing novel about Olympic rivalry, complicated friendships and high-stakes medical parenting.


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