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Gold: Race for medal clouds all else.

Chris Cleave's novel Gold is about two female bicyclists who compete fiercely during the 2004 (Athens), 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) Olympic seasons. As they train for each of these contests, the athletes, Kate and Zoe, pedal their way through endless hours of a gruelling practice together. But that's not the kind of mileage Gold is really about.

Its real concern: How far can a story of rivalry on wheels go Kate and Zoe may share a level of athletic prowess, but they are polar opposites in every other way. Kate looks like a mum. Zoe looks like a model. Kate is devoted to her little daughter, Sophie. Zoe wouldn't hit the brakes on her high-speed bike if Sophie were planted right in front of it, or so it seems. Which of them is the real winner

Both Kate and Zoe have ties to the same studly Scotsman, Jack, who is also an Olympic bicyclist. But Kate landed Jack the old-fashioned way, via courtship and marriage. Zoe made her play for him when he was in a hospital, high on morphine and stuck in traction. Which of them deserves Jack's devotion

Gold begins in 2004, as Zoe trains ferociously for Athens. Her best friend Kate will not be in the competition. Kate has chosen to be home in Manchester, England, with baby Sophie instead of at the velodrome. Kate sits on her Ikea sofa watching Zoe on television. She wears a nightgown at 3 in the afternoon. Her feelings about Zoe's success are mixed. "Who am I kidding " Kate asks herself, about the joys of self-sacrifice and staying home.

If this were any old tear-jerker, Cleave would by this point have enough moving parts in place. But the author of Little Bee (2009) has a personal best to beat. Both Little Bee and its predecessor, Incendiary (2005), had strong political components, but Gold does not. How much pathos can it milk from nothing more than love, friendship, rivalry, bicycles, gold medals and the life-threatening illness of one adorable little girl

That's right: Gold winds up giving Sophie advanced leukaemia. And by doing that, it creates a Sophie's Choice situation for the adults around her. Sophie's decline begins in a relatively subtle way, when this little girl, who loves all things Star Wars and has imaginary conversations with Darth Vader, vomits onto her beloved toy model of the Millennium Falcon. Cleave invests this moment with such schmaltz that he manages to involve an imaginary Chewbacca, the Star Wars hairy heap, in Sophie's daydream. "She could actually hear the Wookiee's mournful cry," he writes.

Kate is so caught up in her rivalry with Zoe that she doesn't realise how ill this little girl has become. In fact, Gold keeps both women so distracted by their competitive sparring that the race to the London Olympics ... pre-empts all else. When it turns out that a rule change will allow only one of them to compete, that means one more knife twist to the reader's heart. And when Sophie's health goes into steep decline just as the pre-Olympic finals loom Bingo.

But the manipulativeness of Gold is as outright as Zoe's desire to back-stab her best friend. No character, not even the wise old bicycling coach Tom, lacks a terrible old wound for the events of Gold to reopen. No situation is too nuanced to become an emotional seesaw. ("Bit by bit, race by race, year by year, a girl like Zoe would stay afloat in the sport while Kate slowly sank under the weight of real life.") And no reference to the things that really matter in life is safe from comparison to the gold that Zoe, Kate and Jack covet so badly. (At the end of his book, Cleave credits the real Olympic medal-winning cyclists of 2004, 2008 and 2012, instead of his fictitious ones. The 2012 contest in London - the one that has not happened yet - is part of this novel's denouement.)

Gold is at its most unabashed in contriving the circumstances of Sophie's birth. Cleave uses Sophie's arrival to heap guilt on every adult character in the book, and he flogs that guilt nonstop until his story is over. He also lets celebrity loom large: Gold makes Zoe very famous, to the point where she appears on creepily green billboards for bottled water ("Perrier: Best Served Cold").

Kate is only slightly less famous, so she, too, is media fodder in her own right. The book concocts credible yet shameless tabloid headlines ("Sophie: Mum's Gold Would Mean So Much to Me"). It has tabloids going wild when Zoe and Kate get matching tattoos of the five-ring Olympic logo.

And Cleave misses no chance to preach about the difference between selfishness and sacrifice, between doing what is expedient and doing what is right. As Kate puts it: "I know I can do a hard road. I know I can do a painful one. But you'll have to help me deal with slow." Alternative version, from Tom: "He knew everything there was to know about making human beings go quicker, but nothing at all about how to make them stop." The case Gold makes for restraint would be more credible if this book showed some. But its ending is so over the top that those readers will feel had.

When Gold describes Zoe's reading habits, it says that she is a book thrower. Anna Karenina, Clarissa Dalloway and Holly Golightly all annoy her. She winds up "disgusted that the protagonists could never seem to just sort themselves out," Cleave writes. But he knows that Zoe will mellow and learn why life is more complicated than winning races. He may not know how much book-throwing she provokes on her own.

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Muscat Press and Publishing House SAOC 2012

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Publication:Times of Oman (Muscat, Oman)
Date:Jul 19, 2012
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