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NOVELS about sport are notoriously hard to pull off. It seems somewhat odd for a literary mind to care how often a ball makes it to the back of the net or how long it takes to sprint down a track. Yet that need not be so. The classic quest narrative-in which an individual overcomes obstacles to achieve a goal-could be a template for any single match or sporting career. "Gold", Chris Cleave's third novel, is a skilful demonstration of the form.
This is the story of Zoe, Kate and Jack, three obsessive race cyclists who meet as young hopefuls. There is bike geekery and Lycra aplenty. As the title suggests, Mr Cleave even dares to set his story around the Olympics, the ultimate sporting circus. Yet this is no niche book for aficionados looking for a brief summer distraction.
Instead, cycling is the backdrop for a deeper exploration of the struggle between the physical and the psychological. Into the love triangle and professional exertions Mr Cleave throws eight-year-old Sophie, diagnosed with leukaemia only days before the Olympics and fighting a different type of battle to the finish.
At times the book seems slightly sentimental. Sophie and Kate are a little too good to be true; Zoe a bit too deranged and calculating. Yet "Gold" works as a novel because Mr Cleave manages to make the reader care about what it takes to win-or even to take part.
The small details speak loudly. As the story opens, Zoe stands terrified as 5,000 people chant her name-yet she is equally frightened that one day they may stop. On another occasion she lingers and stares at Kate's bike before a race and implants the idea that something could be wrong; she wins the mental advantage, and the quicker start. By such tiny glances and irrecoverable moments lives are changed, a lesson that reaches beyond sport. The moment of winning a gold medal, by contrast, can almost seem disappointing.
Mr Cleave knows what makes a good story. Here, his concern is not with macho physicality or crossing a line, but with the endless and enduring human endeavours: love, death and what is left when hopes and dreams are crushed or fulfilled. A book to savour long after the Olympic games are over.