Gold by Chris Cleave – review

Chris Cleave's Olympics-themed novel is timely, heavily-hyped, sentimental… and thrillingly good

Usually, this is where we'd review the third novel by Chris Cleave. We'd give a brief gloss of his earlier books – Incendiary and The Other Hand – then move on more substantially to the work under consideration: Gold. A summary of the plot would follow, with care taken not to give away any of the story's many twists. We'd quote a decent chunk of Cleave's prose – enough for you to decide if it's the kind of thing you'd like. We'd end with a pithy precis of our thoughts on the novel. But with Chris Cleave it's a bit different.

Cleave's books are almost as well-known for their cover blurbs as for their content. On the back of The Other Hand, his editors at Sceptre declared: "We don't want to tell you too much about this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it." It was the start of a marketing phenomenon. The Other Hand, known in the US as Little Bee, tells the interwoven stories of a teenage Nigerian asylum seeker and a London magazine journalist. It has sold more than half a million copies in the UK and was No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. It is an example of that rarest and most coveted of publishing sensations – the word-of-mouth hit. In the summer of 2009, its sun-drenched cover seemed to peek from every handbag on the tube, every item of carry-on luggage at the airport, enjoying the kind of ubiquity that David Nicholls's One Day would experience in 2010.

Although Incendiary has now also risen to bestseller status, the birth of Cleave's debut was more troubled. It's an epistolary novel addressed by the mother of a four-year-old boy killed in a terrorist attack to Osama bin Laden. It was published on 7 July 2005, the date of the London bombings. Posters advertising the book showed a smoking London skyline with "What if?" plastered across it. They were swiftly pulled down and the novel disappeared from view, a case of too much real life for the reading public to handle. Cleave apparently gave up writing for a while in the wake of this disappointment.

The early setback may go some way to explaining the extraordinary marketing instinct that continues to drive Cleave's career. Many writers, after penning a runaway bestseller like The Other Hand, would undertake for their next work something more cerebral, weightier, a book to please the likes of the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani (who savaged Incendiary). Cleave has gone in the other direction. It takes some chutzpah to write a book about the Olympics in this five-ringed year. Cleave might be accused of cynically cashing in – or, if the games are the month-long nightmare that many predict, the novel could suffer Incendiary's fate and be cast aside by a jaded public.

Gold recapitulates The Other Hand's singular approach to cover blurb. "Usually, this is where we'd tell you what this book is about. But with Chris Cleave, it's a bit different. Because if you've read The Other Hand or Incendiary, you'll know that what his books are about is only part of the story – what really matters is how they make you feel." This seems a useful way of thinking about Cleave's work. His novels are unashamedly sentimental; their great success comes from an ability to tug on the heartstrings while being well enough written to appeal to an audience who know their Sebald from their Sebold.

Gold is a very good novel. Perhaps I should have told you that earlier, but its publishers seemed so keen on the whole withholding information thing. In the whipsaw ride of emotions that he takes us on over the book's 300-odd tightly packed pages, Cleave positions himself alongside David Nicholls and Rose Tremain as a modern-day novelist of sensibility: their books are driven – as Gold's blurb so neatly surmises – more by what we feel than what we think.

Though you might assume that a book about the Olympics would prove less fertile ground for this kind of heart-tugging, Gold is violently, sometimes absurdly sentimental. At its core, it is as much a domestic drama as a trackside thriller. The novel takes us deep into the lives of three Olympic sprint cyclists in the lead-up to the London games. We have Jack and Kate, less happily married than at first they seem, and Zoe, who says of herself: "I'm ugly on the inside. I'll mess your head up."

Tom, who trains the two girls, is an injury-riddled former cyclist who missed out on an Olympic gold by a fraction of a second and has lived in the shadow of that failure ever since. Jack and Kate have a daughter, Sophie, who is fighting leukaemia. The novel's dramatic tension centres around the tug between Kate and Jack's drive to be world-beaters at track cycling, and their agonised attempts to deal with their daughter's illness. A corresponding arc sees Zoe battling the demons that drive her on the track but threaten to destroy her off it.

Everyone in the novel is marked by tragedy. Not just Sophie and her illness, which is related in lyrically poignant prose, but also – and here I must be careful not to give away those tingling twists of plot – Zoe, whose past is an orgy of death and despair; Tom, whose missing front teeth are a constant reminder of his missing family; and Kate, whose bland amiability is the response to a catalogue of traumas recent and ancient. The suffering that Cleave puts his characters through would be pornographic were Gold not so strikingly well written.

As in The Other Hand, Cleave uses flashbacks and interwoven narrative strands to give us different perspectives on events so that only gradually do we piece together the intricate pattern that he has knitted between his characters. He dances our sympathies between Zoe and Kate, asking us to root for first one and then another, both on the track and off it. The writing about the cycling is suitably fast-paced, and Cleave has clearly done time in the saddle. Zoe is tucked into another rider's "wind shadow"; Kate "pulled every atom of herself inside out… from being alongside [her opponent] dropped to an inch back, a wheel-length back, and with a cold, silent flicker of wonder in her heart, Kate realised she was going to win."

Gold will be accused of twin cynicisms – of jumping on the Olympics bandwagon and of manipulating its audience's emotions. Sophie did occasionally call to mind Holden Caulfield's dead brother, Allie, in The Catcher in the Rye, who feels as if he was put into the story merely to stoke our sympathy for the grubbily adolescent Holden. Cleave manages to avoid this by giving us a convincing and fully rounded depiction of Sophie's world, employing some memorable Star Wars-themed flights of imagination. He's always good on childhood (Batman-loving Charlie in The Other Hand is a fine comic creation) and the scenes of Zoe's early bicycling escapades are a sepia‑tinted delight.

In his 1979 essay In Defense of Sentimentality, John Irving said: "When we writers – in our own work – escape the slur of sentimentality, we should ask ourselves if what we are doing matters." Gold is indeed a sentimental novel but it has that rare gift of getting past the urban sneer to move and gratify, to stir us because it does, indeed, matter. It is bold and brave and, when you're on your way to the games this summer, and the person opposite you on the train is sobbing hot tears on to their Kindle, you'll have a pretty good idea what they're reading.

Alex Preston's most recent novel is The Revelations (Faber)


Alex Preston

The GuardianTramp

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