WITH the 2012 Summer Olympics fast approaching, British author Chris Cleave's new novel is sure to be a winner.
Aptly named Gold, Cleave's third work of genre fiction examines the entangled lives of three 30-something world champion cyclists vying to compete for Great Britain in the London Olympics.
Zoe, Kate and Jake are all already elite athletes when they meet for the first time at a training facility in Manchester when they are still in their teens. In the course of the next decade and a half their lives continue to overlap as they train and compete with one another under the watchful eyes of Coach Tom, a surrogate father to all three.
During this time rivalries peak and ebb, emotional entanglements ensue, love is given and taken away, and life is complicated by an eccentric and unwell child, but the threesome's pursuit of gold never wavers. As Cleave demonstrated in both Incendiary and Little Bee, his Commonwealth Writers' Prize-nominated first two novels, he is capable of spinning a good story and creating captivating characters of all ages -- although none of the characters in Gold are as memorable as the title character in Little Bee.
Cleave is also keenly alert to the small details of family life and to the foibles and class divisions that characterize contemporary English society.
All of these elements come together in Gold, a novel about what seems to be a narrow topic but one that actually encompasses a broad range of themes. Friendship, rivalry, redemption, loyalty, health and basic goodness are all deftly explored in this novel, resulting in a work of fiction that is surprisingly unpredictable and engaging.
This engagement is largely the result of the way in which Cleave immerses the reader into the interior lives of his characters and into the minutiae of the world of sprint cycling. He is at his best when he describes the physical and emotional sacrifices and the pain that must be endured by those who pursue cycling, and likely any sport, at an elite level.
"The only way you could bear the training, and certainly the only way you could endure the pain of the sprint, was to take life one fraction of a second at a time," Cleave has Zoe acknowledge.
"You carried that attitude with you across the finishing line, and through the dressing room and out into ordinary life.... One moment of pain was never unbearable unless you allowed it to have some kind of a relationship with the moments on either side of it."
These moments of pain become second nature to Zoe, Kate and Jake, as does the psychological one-upmanship that takes place before each and every race, even among friends.
Using their back stories as a starting point, Cleave seems to suggest that every elite athlete's obsession with winning is really just an obsession with proving oneself worthy, healing a wound or escaping a difficult past.
Whether or not that's true of the athletes gathering in England later this summer remains to be told.
Winnipegger Sharon Chisvin is the author of the children's book The Girl Who Cannot Eat Peanut Butter.
By Chris Cleave
Random House, 321 pages, $30