'Swifter, Higher, Stronger'
Chris Cleave has enjoyed huge success with his previous two novels; Incendiary, which with its terrorist attack storyline managed to survive being published on the same day as the 7/7 bombings in London and The Other Hand (which so many people I know have read and loved), so that his name now almost needs to be preceded by the title 'bestselling author...' Success must put its own pressure on a writer given the need to match what has come before (whether that comes from publisher or from within). His publisher, Sceptre, have certainly identified what they think makes him so popular with a collection of marmite book blurbs that test even the strongest of constitutions. These blurbs give little or no hint as to what is contained within the book's cover because 'what really matters is how they make you feel.' His new novel we are reassuringly informed will make us 'cry', 'feel glad to be alive' and 'make you count your blessings.' The timing of publication is important once again for with the London Olympics less than 8 weeks away this novel will be hoping to capitalise on the build up of medal fever.
Following a trio of world class track cyclists all the way from Athens 2004 to London 2012 as they train together, race against each other, their lives constantly intersecting my reading was enhanced in a case of genuinely good timing, coming at the same time as Sir Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny were competing for the one available place to race the Olympic sprint. Perhaps less fortunate was my reading earlier this year of Alexander MacLeod's story collection Light Lifting which includes a story, Miracle Mile, about two world class runners. A good short story has the power to condense its themes and feeling into a heady brew, achieving in just a few pages what a novel may fail to achieve in a few hundred. MacLeod conveyed brilliant the competitiveness, danger and obsessive behaviour of professional athletes, the tiny margins that separate winners from losers. Cleave too has immersed himself in that world, even becoming a keen cyclist himself whilst writing the novel and whilst he also writes well about the limits towards which the professional athlete must push their bodies he cannot help but repeat himself occasionally in the longer format of the novel.
We first meet the three main characters during the Athens Olympics. Zoe is about to compete for gold in the sprint, her main rival and close friend Kate meanwhile is back home in England looking after baby Sophie who had been deemed too poorly to travel. Kate's husband Jack will be racing the next day. In that simple set up we have the beginnings of the major dynamics between these characters. Having met many years previously at an elite training programme they have lived cheek by jowl since. What is clear from the outset, in Kate's sacrifice to stay at home and nurse Sophie, is the difference in attitude between the two women. It is their coach, Tom, who recognises that Kate is the kind of athlete who would stop training if her dad died whereas Zoe wouldn't - '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.' When they all live in Manchester later even their choice of home is indicative with Zoe occupying the penthouse apartment 'at the top of the highest tower in Manchester' on her own whilst 'Kate lived down here on Earth with her family.'
Because they compete directly with each other the focus is very much on the relationship between the two women. Jack isn't as rounded a character; a cocky young thing who makes some bad choices in the early stages and took a while, we learn, to achieve the happy family picture we read about at the beginning of the novel. On the track Kate and Zoe have traded dominance over one another over the years but in the novel it is Zoe who emerges as the strongest character (strongest doesn't necessarily mean best), her ruthless drive exciting our interest - what is it that makes her behave in the cold way she does, employing dastardly tactics in order to give herself an edge on the track? Even their coach, who should have no favourites and treat each athlete with the same care and attention has to admit to himself that Zoe is really his girl. The answer of course is in the past, a childhood accident (on bikes) that devastated her family and forced Zoe into making some kind of unbreakable vow with herself - 'if she could ride faster than she had ever ridden before - if she could ride faster than time' then she might be able to undo what had been done. That drive remains, even several years after she must have stopped in that child's belief, now she simply must win at all costs, that is the only thing that is important and that inevitably leads her to a place of loneliness, with the dangerous prospect of what will remain when winning is no longer possible.
Her life was one endless loop that she raced around, with steeped banked curves so she could never change or slow down. It just delivered her back to herself, over and over and over.
Perhaps the novel's most successful character is Sophie. Poorly when we first meet her it is only a few pages later when the novel fast forwards to the present day with her as a eight year old that we learn that she has already endured leukaemia, remission and relapsed once again. Now, in a book whose blurb says little other than that I will definitely cry I've got to be honest and say that when you introduce a leukaemia-stricken child on page 15 then I can feel my emotional buttons being toyed with. And I don't like it. So, this poor girl is either going to die (whilst the adult characters either do or don't pursue their dreams) or she's going to survive against the odds, proving what real heroism is when compared to the athletic pursuits of the adults around her. Or perhaps the ultimate tearjerker: she's going to help inspire the adults to victory and then die.
Luckily Cleave is a bit cleverer than that. Sophie is actually the most interesting character in the book because whilst she may only be eight she is very much aware of her illness and her importance in the lives of the adults around her. So aware is she of the impact that her illness has on the stress levels of Jack and Kate for example that she has actively chosen Star Wars to be her childhood obsession because it is a strong and active pursuit, providing plenty of opportunity for her to 'show' how well she is really (I understand that there is a Batman obsessed child in The Other Hand, which I haven't read, so this aspect of her character may seem tired to those who have). The terrible truth of course is that Sophie is very poorly indeed.
That half a minute of talking with Ruby had wiped her out. It was good, though. Mum 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 back into their voices, and notice the little sideways glances they shot at her while they pretended they weren't looking. They would start to have arguments with each other, about stupid things like training hours and long-grain rice, and they wouldn't even know why they were doing it. She would know, though. It 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.Given my aversion to child narrators I was surprised to find myself so taken with Sophie. She may not narrate directly but even a child's viewpoint is usually enough to raise my hackles, so all credit to Cleave for creating a child who provides some of the most interesting insights into those that surround her, in a novel in which the adults are blind to so much about themselves. The plot machinations become almost soap-operatic towards the end but Sophie remains true to her passions and her own innate bravery, an example to her parents. The book in general is much darker than I was expecting. I say this as a good thing; so that what I worried might be a bit of light, inspirational fluff to accompany the inevitable surge in interest in everything from archery to wrestling this summer is actually an attempt to write about the dark heart of sporting excellence, where exactly the will to succeed at the limits of physical endurance comes from, and where the fundamental drive that we can only call the survival of the fittest might take us. Macleod, as I mentioned earlier, manages to cram most of that (and some other things besides) into a few pages and whilst this book may not have achieved any of the things that horrible blurb promised for me personally, and whilst my relationship with bestselling novels continues to falter, it did at least try to push itself into some unsafe territory and entertain me along the way.
WIN A COPY OF GOLD
Now, I'm always ready for people to disagree with me so if you're a fan of Cleave's previous novels or like the sound of this one then I am offering you the opportunity to receive your own copy of Gold, gratis, as long as you come back here and let me know what you thought. The competition is open to UK residents only and you can enter by leaving a comment below or sending me a message via the 'email me' button at the top left. You've got one week to enter. On your marks, get set....go!