Chris Cleave is no stranger to zeitgeist fiction. Incendiary, his 2005 début novel about the impact of a terrorist attack in a London football stadium, was published on the day that bombs tore apart the capital's transport. Gold, his third novel, has been raring to go for months and, I suspect, has been held back by its publisher until the general upswell of public enthusiasm for London 2012 approaches fever pitch. For Cleave fans and the reading public, the wait has been worth it.
Gold is in every sense a taut novel about three intimate, sharply drawn characters – lovers, rivals – training for cycling gold medals at the 2012 Olympics. It sets off at a sprint. In the first few pages Kate foregoes her passionate desire for a podium place at the 2004 Athens games to look after baby Sophie, reduced to watching TV coverage of her partner Jack, Sophie's dad, and her best friend Zoe take gold. A few pages further in and Sophie has leukaemia. This book initially presents as the breathless, ethically divisive, issue-based fiction favoured by the likes of Jodi Picoult (an accolade in itself), but Cleave stamps his own imprimatur on the domestic trauma.
Kate's nurturing instincts contrast sharply with the lonely antagonism of Zoe, her psychologically damaged stable-mate who is driven by a naked, pathological need to win. Between them is Jack, physically perfect but mentally stuck at 19, and conflictingly attached to both; and Sophie, needy, defiant, the novel's innocent touchstone. If the athletes provide pace, Sophie allows Cleave some literary strategy and game-playing. Her Star Wars fantasies, like the Batman obsession of the child in The Other Hand, Cleave's excellent previous novel, are a coping mechanism that cleverly allows her to play out anguish below the level of articulation.
As a cyclist myself (albeit casual rather than insanely competitive) I recognise the exhilaration and kick of a sport that combines extreme exertion with considerable speed close to the ground and other hazards. Cleave captures the heady balance of sharp motor control and vulnerability to the threat of bone-crunching, life-threatening impacts both in the velodrome and out, weaving between vehicles. He cleverly reinforces this collision of freedom and danger with an artfully withheld strand of Zoe's back-story.
But besides some technical tinkering and the odd training circuit from Manchester to Colwyn Bay and back, this superb, adrenalin-soaked novel is not about the bike any more than it's about the athletes' isotonic diets or exercise regimes. It's about head space, physical, social and moral judgement, aggression, emotional stamina and the extremes of friendship and love; it's about ambition and sacrifice. As with all Cleave's work, Gold probes the limit of what its protagonists will do to identify and protect what they really cherish. And that, in Cleave's confident hands, truly is exhilarating.