Exactly two weeks have passed since the London 2012 closing ceremony; still feeling Olympic withdrawal? Might I suggest a literary antidote: Chris Cleave‘s latest novel, made even more timely as the Olympic sport of choice here is cycling (albeit indoors). Road cyclist Bradley Wiggins emerged as London 2012′s bell-ringing local hero, and made sports history by becoming the first athlete to win the Tour de France and Olympic Gold in the same year.
Cleave has an eerie knack for timing. Gold cycled onto shelves just before London 2012 – intentionally so, I’m sure. Not so purposeful was the pub date for his debut, Incendiary, about a London bombing (!), which somehow landed on July 7, 2005 – the very morning four suicide bombers hit the London Underground and a London bus, killing more than 50 people. So much was made about the book’s timing that Cleave will “no longer comment” on the subject. Surreal, no?
But back to Gold. Cleave’s third novel is essentially a story of how the love for/dedication to/obsession with cycling creates a family of five seemingly misfits. Sweet Kate and angry Zoe meet as competitors at age 19, both hoping for a spot on the U.K. national track cycling team. Kate eventually marries fellow cyclist Jack, though not without a scuffle or two and more. All three are coached by gruff-but-supportive Tom, who has never recovered from losing his own chance at an Olympic medal decades ago by just one-tenth of a second. While Zoe and Kate bond and battle each other on the track and off, Kate and Tom’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter Sophie will fight for her life twice over battling leukemia, all the while trying not to disrupt her parents’ competitive lives.
British actress Emilia Fox expertly narrates Cleave’s prose with a sense of controlled desperation as both Kate and Zoe, now 32, must go head-to-head against each other one last time for a spot on the London 2012 team. Fox’s reading aptly captures Kate’s self-sacrificing, forgiving nature so at odds with how much she wants this final chance at victory, and is equally adept at giving voice to Zoe’s detached, hardened, but about-to-break-down, no-longer-protective shell.
And yet … by book’s end, Fox’s performance ultimately scores higher than Cleave’s novel. Cleave reveals his saga in time-traveling pieces scattered over the past decades, divulging a lost sibling, a cheating mother, a difficult but proud father, a secret kept too long … but the details are often too obvious and the revelations hardly surprising. Kate and Zoe, such opposites, too quickly devolve into bland stereotypes of predictably ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Being still in a bit of Olympic mood, if I were handing out medals, Little Bee would garner gold, Incendiary silver, but alas, like Cleave’s character Tom, Gold just might miss medaling by more than a tenth of a page.
Tidbit: Chris Cleave is heading across the Pond for events across the country from October 1-15. Here’s his U.S. tour schedule.