Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gold by Chris Cleave

Little Bee by Chris Cleave is one of my favorite books of all time.  So when I was able to pick up a copy of his latest book Gold at the Book Expo, I was thrilled.  Then I read Bruce Barcott's review of the book in the New York Times.  "Gold is so unlike Cleave's earlier work that it doesn't seem implausible to imagine a mate down at the pub challenging him to write a book without any of the qualities that so delighted readers of Incendiary and Little Bee:  vibrant first-person narrators, snap-snap dialogue, complex cultural-political themes, brisk scenes, and deeply engaging characters."    Nonetheless, I decided to give Gold a try, and it was hard to put it down until I had turned the last page.  I seem to have read an entirely different book than the one Mr. Barcott (whoever he is) read, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Gold tells the story of the friendship and rivalry of two women who are Olympic track cyclists, Kate and Zoe, and the people important to them both--their coach Tom and Kate's husband and daughter, Jack and Sophie.  The story shifts between the past and the present as we learn a bit about the arduous lives of Olympic level athletes.  Kate and Zoe's lives have been interwoven (often uncomfortably) since they met at age 19 at a try-out for the Elite Prospects Programme run by British Cycling.  From the beginning, you know that Kate and Zoe approach life differently from one another, but my favorite passage highlighting their disparate personalities appears towards the end of the book when the two women's bikes are being set up for a race.  "In the way the machines were set up, you could feel something of the riders...Kate's machine was painted simple white, with a passport-sized image of Sophie's face smiling up from the top tube under the clear lacquer of the finish.  The bars were wrapped with a light pink bar tape that was springy and warm to the touch.  Zoe's bike was unpainted, so that the functional lay-up of the dark carbon fiber was visible under the matte varnish.  Her bars had a black rubberized grip on the drops.  On each side of the seat tube, visible from whichever side her opponent lined up beside her on the start line, was written UNDEFEATED in large gold letters...While Kate's bike was designed to make her feel at home in the cockpit, Zoe's was calculated to intimidate."

Zoe lives for racing.  "The thought of stepping up into the full roar of the crowd..seemed simple and natural and good.  It was ordinary days now that frightened her--the endless Tuesday mornings and Wednesday afternoons of real life, the days you had to steer through without the benefit of handlebars...As soon as she got off her bike, her heart was expected to perform all these baffling secondary functions--like loving someone and feeling something and belonging somewhere--when all she'd ever trained it to do was pump blood."   As you might guess, Zoe is struggling to find herself off the track, which is the one place where she finds respite from a haunting memory.

Kate has a full life outside of cycling with her Olympic cyclist husband and her young daughter who is fighting leukemia.  In the opening chapter of the book, Kate watches her husband and Zoe compete in the Olympics in Athens on TV as she takes care of Sophie, who was too frail to make the trip to the Games.  "...Zoe was now sitting on a twelve-thousand-dollar American prototype race bike...while she herself was sitting on a Klippan sofa from Ikea... Kate was well aware that there were victories to which such a seat could be ridden, but they were small and domesticated triumphs, measured in infants weaned and potty-training campaigns prosecuted to dryness."   Kate's life is all about balance, both on and off the track.

Cleave doesn't give short shrift to the character development of the book's supporting actors.  Sophie, at age eight, is struggling with a recurrence of her leukemia and shows a wisdom beyond her years.  When returning home from an outing with her parents, she has a short conversation with a neighbor kid.  "That half minute of talking with Ruby had wiped her out.  It was good, though.  Mom had seen it.  Dad had seen it.  That counted for an hour when they wouldn't worry.  After that she knew she would start to see the lines creeping back into their faces, and hear the sharp edge coming into their voices...[that] meant that they were scared for her all over again, and she would have to do one of the things that made them forget it for another hour."

We see Jack more as a father rather than a cyclist.  He is sweet and tender with Sophie, telling her that she has to be defiant as well as strong in fighting her cancer.  "What's the difference?"  Sophie asks.  "Defiant, Sophie Argall, is if you ever find yourself in front of a firing squad, you say no to the offer of a blindfold..so you can keep looking for a way to escape, right till the last second."

And Tom, Kate and Zoe's coach for 15+ years, is a wonderful father figure for both of the women.  He lost his bid for an Olympic bronze in the '68 Olympics by one-tenth of one second, and "Forty four years later he still noticed the sharp passage of every tenth part of every second.  The inflections of time were the teeth of a saw, bisecting him.  This was not how other people experienced time.  They noticed its teeth indistinctly in a blur of motion and were amazed to wake up one day and find themselves cut in half by it, like the assistants of a negligent magician.  But Tom knew how the cut was made."   He understands, though, that there is life both between and beyond the competitions, and he helps the women, particularly Zoe, navigate its path.

As you can probably tell by the number of quotes from the book that I've included, I nearly ran through my inventory of flags highlighting the passages that I wanted to remember.  Cleave is a compelling writer who has a gift with words.  I hope that other Chris Cleave fans aren't dissuaded from reading Gold due to Mr. Barcott's review.  They would miss a book worthy of a gold medal of its own.

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