I was recently reminded of the Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. The idea that what we value most is impossible to grasp hold of permanently is strongly resonant of a lot of things in life. Gold: a soft, yellow, precious metallic element that is highly valued. We fight for gold - for the achievements it represents, for the monetary value, for the idea of perfection - but once we get there, what does it mean? And what do we have to sacrifice along the way?
Chris Cleave’s new book is the story of two athletes fighting for gold. They are at the top of their sport, Britain’s number one and two in track cycling. Zoe has already won twice at the Olympics; surely it is Kate’s turn now. Over three simple days, Cleave builds up the story and all its tangled threads, all its tensions, lining us up for the starter gun on day four, the race, the climax, the question: who will win, who will lose. It is outstanding. Reading in every spare moment I could find, I was completely caught up by the rhythms of the race, by the rhythms of the lives of these two women and the others caught up with them, their trainer Tom, Kate’s husband Jack and their poorly eight year old, Sophie.
What do they race for? Are they racing toward something, toward their future, or are they racing away from their past? How far are they willing to go - do they put themselves first every time, or are they able to put others first when it really matters?
Cleave’s writing is astounding. A race in itself, page by page he increases the momentum, until the wheels are spinning and the adrenaline is pumping. The story itself and the way he lays out the chapters resemble the strategies his cyclists use in their races, powering forward, hanging back, using the slipstream, the juxtaposition of storylines and character crises, then the final push to the finish line. Even Cleave’s language embodies the rhythms of the race. And, just when you think it’s all over, another battle is there, waiting at the sidelines, ready to pounce.
Gold begins in 2004, at the Athens Olympics, before jumping ahead to 2012 and preparations for the London games. Kate and Zoe, best friends and best rivals, look set to be winners, but as the days unfold Cleave starts to undo the assumptions I initially made: this is not the story of a simple rivalry - their lives are tangled together in more ways than one and they’re headed for a fall. Zoe is the selfish one, the one who puts winning above and beyond everything else, while Kate has sacrificed winning in the past for the sake of her family. Will she have to do the same again? Her daughter, Sophie, is fighting leukemia and, not wanting to worry her parents, is hiding just how much pain she’s really in. Kate, Zoe and Sophie are zooming towards crisis point and its anybody’s guess who will come out the other side, if anyone at all. Is it all worth it, in the end, for that one moment, that one instance, that one small piece of gold?
The blurb for Gold says: “Gold is about the limits of human endurance, both physical and emotional. Gold is about what drives us to succeed - and what we choose to sacrifice for success. Gold is about the struggles we all face every day; the conflict between winning on others’ terms, and triumphing on your own.” The truth is, Gold is all of these things and more. It’s painful, it’s heart-pounding, and it will take your breath away.
Here is a short interview with Chris Cleave talking about why he wrote Gold: