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. 小细节里有大蕴义。譬如小说开场，5000名观众反复喊着若伊的名字，这让站在台上的她紧张极了；然而若有一天人们不再这么做，她同样会害怕。另外一个场景，在一场比赛开始前，若伊故意徘徊着，盯住凯特的自行车，让对方觉得自己的车子出了毛病。于是她赢得了心理上的优势，在起点上抢占了先机。但是这种伎俩和自私的光景被某种高于体育的精神改变了。相形之下，夺取金牌的时刻，几乎让人沮丧。
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.