Cleave is fearless about tackling women’s voices, and finding the bright spots embedded in calamity. In his first novel, Incendiary, he reinvents the life of a mother who loses her son and husband to an act of terrorism. Little Bee, his wildly successful second book, describes the life of a Nigerian woman seeking asylum in England. With this equally ambitious novel, Cleave is going for gold with a widescreen, action-packed story that explores two emotional extremes: the life of a professional athlete determined to win at any cost, and the experience of parents caring for a gravely ill child.
Zoe and Kate meet as 19-year-old cyclists who share an aging coach. Zoe is a driven party girl while Kate is the sensible one who feels a bit guilty when she wins. Their goal is to compete in the London Olympics. But when Kate falls in love with another gold-seeking cyclist, she discovers how motherhood can mess with the singlemindedness their sport demands. The fact their daughter has leukemia only raises the stakes higher, in a novel where conflict and consequence pile up like sweaty riders in a peloton. Looking after a very sick child, Cleave writes, is “the Olympics of parenting.” The theme of personal ambition vs. parental demands feels as timely as the feat of synchronizing the novel to this summer’s games in London. He overestimates the sort of media frenzy that would focus on a female cyclist, though. Or is that just a familiarity with London tabloid culture talking? (Cleave was a long-time columnist for the Guardian newspaper.)
“I like to tell stories about a world that hasn’t yet cooled,” Cleave has said, and his fiction does have a deeply researched journalistic immediacy. He writes with great tenderness about children. But Kate and Zoe too often behave as if they are in a movie—as they no doubt soon will be. The language is by turns brilliant and overamped. (“Rain lashed her face and she opened her mouth, liking the untamed taste of it.”) There’s more than a soupçon of Harlequin here—and that’s just the way his millions of readers like it.