Gold by Chris Cleave

September 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

This book was provided free of charge by Random House Canada in return for an honest review.

Chris Cleave’s first novel, Incendiary, about a terrorist attack on London, was released on 7 July 2005, a day that many of us set off for work as normal, only to find ourselves caught up in a terrorist attack on London. So learning that Cleave’s new novel, Gold, was about the London Olympics made me feel more than a little queasy.

The Other Hand (Little Bee in North America), Cleave’s second novel, was an effective—although plot-holed—and strongly written examination of capitalism and colonialism on the grand scale, and marriage and decent-personhood on the small scale.  It was, I thought, intelligent upmarket mainstream, so I was eager to read Gold.

But Gold is disappointing. It’s a plot heavy story about two cyclists, Kate and Zoe, who have been training together since they were teenagers, and who are both expected to make it to the Olympics—until the Olympic committee decides that only one person from each country can qualify for each event. Although the two have forged out a friendship over the years (a friendship that is largely impossible to believe in, given Zoe’s narcissistic nastiness and Kate’s saintly sadism as she constantly comes back for more) this plot twist pits them against each other yet again. Cleave has given Kate, and her husband Jack, who also has a complicated history with Zoe, a very ill daughter, to increase the levels of emotional manipulation. Writing is always emotional manipulation, of course, but there is something galling about not only seeing the strings but then being more or less instructed to pull them yourself.

There are a lot of people who enjoy literary fiction who also like to take an easy read to the beach. This is that kind of book: far more intelligently written than most genre stuff, but satisfying if you want a plot-driven page turner. But although I was sucked in by the pace and the competition—and Cleave does write very well about cycling itself, the familiar buzz of speed and effort, the adrenaline of competition—I felt rather sullied by having been forced to pick sides from these three utterly flat, unbelievable characters, almost fairytale-like in the lack of nuance. Even when Zoe is marginally rehabilitated from evil witch to passably human, it’s heavy-handed and unsatisfying. It’s disappointing too because Cleave does have the ability to figure out and elegantly describe the workings of the human mind, but that talent is too quiet to be heard above the rest of this novel.

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