Going for gold

03:00, Aug 30 2012

Chris Cleave's newest release, Gold, has a very attractive cover.

Designed by Matt W. Moore, who also helped create Olympic tie-in packaging for Coca Cola in the UK, the cover features a wild starburst of sparkling, metallic colours running over and around a minimalistic white title.

Reading the blurb, I had an uncharitable thought: “He's trying to make up for it being a sports book, isn't he.”

I have old-fashioned ideas about sports books. Working with sports journalists has taught me the world of sport is unbelievably complex, but in my mind, books about sport are on par with car maintenance manuals and interior decorating magazines for literary merit.

It'd be great if somebody would tell me about a really great sporting book which will blow my mind and change my life, but in the meantime, I'd like to say I enjoyed Gold a lot more than I expected. There were a few minor niggles which detracted from the natural flow of Cleave's writing, but on the whole, I was impressed.

Something which struck me immediately was the size of the type-face used. Estimating carefully, I think it's about 30 per cent bigger than the two other books I'm reading at the moment- Lucy Siegle's To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? and Richard Meros' Zebulon: A Cautionary Tale.


Perhaps I am singling Gold out unnecessarily as I’m sure people with reading glasses appreciated the boost in clarity, but it took me a little getting used to.

The story itself focuses on the friendship and rivalry between two professional cyclists, Zoe and Kate. Zoe is a dangerously focused femme fatale who doesn't care about anything except sex and bicycles. On the whole, Cleave presented Zoe in a pleasingly human light, neither hero nor villain - he said at Wednesday's author talk in the Elma Turner library that she was his favourite out of every character he'd ever written.

Cleave contrasts Zoe's chaotic intensity with Kate, who is a demure Super Woman in cyclist's clothing. Sweet-natured Kate juggles pro-training with caring for her young daughter Sophie, who has leukaemia. While Cleave spends time sensitively explaining the enormity of Kate's emotional burden and the effort she puts into maintaining Sophie's comfort, I did finish the book feeling as if Kate was written to be slightly ignored in favour of Zoe’s dramatic flair.

Gender issues in the book were tastefully covered and treated seriously, which is a huge achievement for a book about serious female athletes written by a man. Cleave takes the two women’s competition so seriously, in fact, that the rivalry becomes dangerously close to overblown at times.

While Cleave avoids speaking about Zoe and Kate in terms of good versus evil through most of the book, his metaphors let him down near the end.

In the final race, Zoe rides a black bike with “UNDEFEATED” written in Old English typeface on it, and Kate has a “simple white” bike with a picture of Sophie's face where she can see it.

Even the riders’ choice of post-race drink is supposed to convey a sense of Kate’s moral superiority, with her berry-fruit smoothie held in opposition to the dark menace of Zoe’s powdered protein shake.

This tendency to draw out maximum drama from every situation means Gold is not  the sort of book I would voluntarily seek out and read again, but it was an undeniably gripping story with a genuine heart. Its level of realism came at a price to the author, with Cleave saying he spent months cycle-training to the brink of breakdown to get a feel for the kind of world his characters exist in.

At the Elma Turner talk, I had one more burning question for Cleave after he’d finished speaking about his research. In the book, Kate's daughter Sophie is a giant Star Wars fangirl - but she only talks or thinks about characters from the original three movies released well before she was born. Isn't this a bit unrealistic for an eight-year-old?

“Well,” said Cleave patiently, “Like my own children, Sophie scorns the three most recent films completely.”

“I was amazed to discover they all like the original films best,” he said. “I think it's something to do with that Harrison Ford character. They think he's the hero.”

I’m not quite converted to sports books, but in the end, Gold made me quite happy.

Can you recommend a beloved sports book? What did you think of Gold, or any of Cleave’s previous work? Do you favour Team Solo or Team Skywalker?