- - Friday, September 7, 2012

By Chris Cleave
Simon & Schuster, $27, 324 pages

Chris Cleave has done a curious thing. He has taken two very different topics — bicycle racing and childhood leukemia — and merged them in an exciting tale. Readers of Mr. Cleave’s earlier novel, “Little Bee,” the story of a Nigerian girl in London, know he enjoys taking on difficult subjects and artfully turning them into fascinating fiction. His new novel, “Gold,” does exactly that.

Zoe and Kate met when they were 19, both cyclists and avid racers, each making the cut for the British national training program in track cycling. They were as different as night and day, both physically and emotionally, except for their desire to win. “Kate was the more naturally gifted rider, Zoe leveled the score with pure determination.” Their trainer, Tom Voss, also was once an Olympic competitor but is crippled with “inflamed ligaments [that] weren’t responding to the application of ibuprofen rub. In truth he knew they would only respond to his applying several decades of top-level coaching insight to his own life. It was maybe time to admit that a sixty-six-year old man shouldn’t be doing clean and jerk with a heavy barbell.

Jack “was an Olympic gold medalist, and he was one of the top five quickest male cyclists in the world.” Both girls were taken with him when they met, and he with them — Zoe for her good looks and vibrant personality, Kate for her calm strength of character. He loved — and ultimately married — Kate, but he couldn’t resist Zoe.

The novel slips forward and backward between the time of their initial meeting in 1999 and the training of the three racers for the 2012 London Olympics 13 years later. The women are now 32 and know it is their last chance at gold.

Zoe and Kate become best friends despite Zoe’s underhanded ways of treating Kate on the track. Zoe achieved gold in Athens and Beijing. With her black hair and green eyes, she had become the darling of the sports media. She acquired sponsors and saw her picture on billboards all over town, the town in question being Manchester, England, where the racers live. Although she purchased a fancy high-rise apartment and lived a lifestyle her deprived childhood never could have envisioned, she was lonely; she had no family, and she slept with handsome strangers. “Zoe was happiest when she was street racing. It was dirty, and it was fast and everything you could see wanted to kill you.” Always, she was driven to win.

Kate was low-key. She fell in love with Jack when she met him. Despite his attraction to Zoe, it was Kate he married. “Spades ince the age of six, her dream had been to win gold in an Olympics. Her eighteen years of preparation had been perfect. She had reached the highest level in the sport. She had shared a coach with Zoe and trained with her and beaten her in the Nationals and the Worlds. And then, in the final year of preparation for Athens, baby Sophie had arrived.”

Sophie was a lovely baby and beautiful child. When she came down with leukemia, her parents’ lives were shattered. Kate gave up her dream of Olympic gold in order to care for the child. Sophie created a Star Wars world of her own centered on Darth Vader and the “Imperial battle station colloquially known as the Death Star.” She pretended to feel well in order not to worry her parents, despite her increasing weakness. “Here was Sophie now, shuffling back into the kitchen and sitting down abruptly on the blue-and-white tiled floor. She sagged like a roofline weary of the rain.” Sophie does not die; the chemo works, and she is granted a long remission.

In the end, Kate gets her chance at Olympic gold and Zoe is defeated. Whether Mr. Cleave’s characters are based on real people, or whether they are his own creations doesn’t matter. What does matter is his magical portrayal of the excitement and thrill of the race and the anguish of watching a child in pain, all vividly set forth in “Gold.” Here is how he describes Zoe as she waits for the starter’s gun:

“She breathed hard, getting the oxygen into her blood. Focusing. She looked along the curved black line that bent gravity around the locus of her fury and called in all her demons and bound them together into one infinitely hot point of energy in the center of her. She shook with the force of it. The absolute anger of her energy would kill her if she had to hold it for more than a few more seconds. She fought to keep it contained. The speed struggled hysterically to be born. For the three last impossible seconds she restrained it, focused between the race and the real world, under starter’s orders.”

At the same time, he writes with a poetic sense of language. He describes Zoe after she finally lost a race, as even “in distress, there was a grace to the physics of her. While Tom hobbled on his ruined knees, Zoe flowed easily down the stairs, like oiled light. There was an unself-conscious sense of entitlement in her movement, as if space and time sucked in their guts to let her through, like starstruck bouncers on a nightclub door.” “Gold” is exciting and unexpected.

In a touching author’s note, Mr. Cleave speaks of the “brutal and relentless” training and how “desperate and dangerous” is the racing. He names the real racing winners of Athens and Beijing, adding, “May their victories be remembered and their characters celebrated forever.” He pays homage to the work of the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. Chris Cleave is a remarkable writer of great talent.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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