Culture Street

By Sophia Whitfield

Every so often an unexpected book comes along. I have wanted to read a book by Chris Cleave for some time and thought this one would fit perfectly into our Olympic themed week. Although I had heard about the book, I had not read a review or a publisher’s blurb. I only knew it was about cycling and had references to the Olympics. Both these things are true, but it is about so much more.

Gold is Cleave’s third novel; he also penned a humorous parenting column for The Guardian called Down with the Kids.

Gold goes back and forth in time tracking three athletes from the age of 19 until the age of 32. Kate, Zoe and Jack meet at the age of 19 at a velodrome in Manchester, having been selected for the Elite Prospects Programme. The three of them outperform the other sprint cyclists to gain top level coaches. The two girls share a coach, the beleaguered Tom. Zoe and Kate train together and compete against each other, always jostling for the top spot. Zoe is powered by her own fury and Kate by her sheer talent.

For these three athletes, days are divided up into training hours as they keep their end goal in sight. They are driven to succeed, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Cleave tracks time through the Beijing and Athens Olympics culminating with the London Olympics. They share defeats, disappointments and losses.

Zoe and Kate have a complex relationship. They are friends, having spent hours together over the years. They are also competitors. They know each other intimately on the track, they recognise muscle twitches, they know each other’s mental and physical weaknesses and are not afraid to use the weaknesses to their advantage when the number one spot is on the line. As they power away at training with their muscles aching and their bodies crying out for oxygen, they are aware that there can only be one winner and both of them want to win.

Added into the mix is Sophie, Kate and Jack’s daughter. She is undergoing chemotherapy for leukaemia. Jack and Kate share her care as they continue to train in alternate four hour training programs. The two balance mental anguish from caring for their child, along with the physical pain and exertion from their training regimes.

At the end of his book Cleave states that he spent time at the Great Ormond Street Hospital where seriously ill children are cared for. He shadowed Dr Phillip Arncliff, a consultant haematologist, and was present in the room when he broke serious diagnosis to the parents of sick children.

It is obvious that Cleave has done his research. His descriptions of the raw anguish that Kate and Jack go through as their daughter continues to suffer are astute. We feel for them as they make decisions, often sacrificing their own desires, based on their daughter’s needs. We see Kate and Jack fall into the rhythm of caring for their sick daughter, so used to the daily tasks, the medication, the constant monitoring, and the hospital visits, that it becomes second nature.

Cleave carefully balances the intensity of two physical and emotional battles – caring for a seriously ill child and training to be an Olympic athlete. Cleave aptly describes the drive and passion that is necessary for high level sportsmen and women to achieve their goals. Like the cyclists Cleave describes, his book Gold, powers along with a relentless intensity. It is gripping and hard to put down.

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