Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gold, by Chris Cleave

Zoe, Kate, and Jack are top-flight short-track bicyclists living and training in Manchester, England; Tom is their coach, a former cyclist who missed an Olympic gold medal by a fraction of a second. Zoe is obsessed with winning to the extent that she has little else in her life; we are meant to believe that all of this relates back to her brother's death in childhood (although it seems she was already obsessive then). She even uses sex as a tactic for getting the best of Kate, her friend and rival. Kate is the antithesis of Zoe, giving up her chances in both the Athens and Beijing games to care for her daughter Sophie--a rather fragile newborn at the time of the Athens games, freshly diagnosed with leukemia in Beijing. Jack and Kate are married, but Jack has also had a dalliance with Zoe.

Most of the action in the book takes place while the three adults are training for the London games and Sophie is fighting a recurrence of her leukemia, imagining herself as Luke Skywalker and her bad blood cells as enemird to be vanquished by The Force. She is hiding just how badly she is reacting to the chemotherapy from her parents because she knows her sickness could interfere with their training (in one scene she vomits into the Millennium Falcon and then must figure out how to sneak the spaceship into the bathroom to empty and clean it). Meanwhile, the Olympic committee changes the rules for the short-track events, meaning that only one of the women--Zoe or Kate--can compete in London.

Numerous conflicts and crises ensue, but nothing obscures the fact that Gold is a rather mundane story, with few surprises or insights. For me this was particularly disappointing because I liked Cleave's previous two novels (especially Little Bee) so much. Relocating his story from the nexus between individual lives and significant international concerns--terrorism, immigration, brutal regimes in Africa--to the world of sport reduced its effectiveness substantially. And I say this as a sports fan with some family experience of childhood leukemia. Very disappointing!

Favorite passages:
One moment of pain was never unbearable unless you allowed it to have some kind of a relationship with the moments on either side of it. Atoms of time could be trained to operate quite effectively in strictly partitioned cubicles on the open-plan floor of the day.

Zoe left him lying there, gathering her things quietly and tiptoeing across the floor to allow them both the dignity of the notion that, were it not for the fact that he was sleeping, one of them would have spoken words of farewell that would have been weightless and wise and made the whole terrible thing all right. It was important to leave space for the idea that such words were available to be spoken, requiring only to be plucked from the low-hanging branches of the dawn.

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