Set against the backdrop of the Olympic Games of 2004 (Athens), 2008 (Beijing) and the not-yet-happened-when-book-written 2012 games in London, the author has, once again, taken extraordinary circumstances and created a novel where the characters are facing huge ethical and moral dilemmas. His two previous novels, 'Incendiary' and 'Little Bee' tackle the subjects of terrorism and illegal refugees respectively. The subject matter in 'Gold' is nowhere near as political - top level cycling and cancer in children - but does provoke the same extreme levels of emotion reaction.
Kate and Zoe are the Olympic cyclists, both British, both world champions, both fiercely competitive. Kate is the all-English girl - everyone's best friend, generous to a fault, the media darling, married to Jack, the British male cycling champ. Zoe is the polar opposite - a loner, permanently verging on self-combustion, unable to be happy, Kate being her only friend in the world. Kate missed out on the 2004 and 2008 Olympics due to her having a new baby, Sophie, to care for in 2004, and in 2008 having to withdraw from the team due to Sophie suffering from leukemia. Finally in 2012, her chance to be the Olympic champion, to make it hers, has arrived. But a relapse in Sophie's health threatens this golden opportunity. As one reviewer put it, and I can't remember who(!), the phrase Sophie's Choice takes on its own meaning in this story.
Does all this sound a bit too chick flick-ky for you? Despite the plot line probably being implausible, the story as a whole is actually very good. I knew absolutely nothing at all about top level track cycling. It certainly is amazing to watch on TV, but the work, dedication, psychology, mind games, intense focus that goes on to get those competitors on the track is quite astounding. And what goes on in those incredibly short races, physically and mentally, inside the cyclists - nothing short of awesome! These would be the sections of the book I most enjoyed reading, mainly because I learnt so much! And I will now watch track cycling with a new degree of awe and admiration for the limits these people push their minds and bodies to.
Young Sophie's illness could have been milked and milked and drip fed to the reader in the most heart wrenching agony, and I probably learnt more about pediatric cancer than I really wanted to know, but as much of it was told from Sophie's point of view, in her parallel Star Wars universe, it didn't feel as much like a soap opera as it could have done. Sophie is one plucky wee girl, but with parents who are Olympic cyclists it is hardly surprising she has inherited their toughness and their strength.
It's a good read, but I still think 'Little Bee' is the best of the three books he has written.