It’s easy to be seduced by the new and shiny, even when it comes to books. So often that impenetrable to-read pile stands ignored as the latest release grabs your attention. I am incredibly guilty of this, but I’m currently making more a concerned effort in my everyday to use what I have rather than buying new - wearing clothes until they’re at the end of their life, making meals from what’s already in the fridge, and reading books that are on the pile rather than buying something new. Sometimes this comes with a sense of accomplishment and smugness that ca not be rivalled: the joy of throwing a delicious meal together without having to run to the supermarket feels like a game against the big bad world outside, particularly on a drizzly Melbourne day. But sometimes, it can work against you. Wearing old clothes and realising just as you’re walking into a meeting that there is a visible hole on the front of your top. Or picking up a book that’s been on the to-read pile so long that you’ve forgotten why it’s there, and it turns out to be terrible. I read Gold (somewhat ironically) instead of buying something shiny and new. I finished it because I read this article in The Atlantic sub-titled ‘you suffer when you quit a story midway through—and so does literature’. But honestly, this is one of those cases where I wished I had just stopped punishing myself, grabbed that shiny new Lena Dunham memoir and just been cool with it.
Gold is a classic love triangle story about three cyclists who meet as young rookies and who grow into Olympic champions for British Cycling. The three lives seem inseparable despite different priorities; Kate and Jack are raising a daughter with leukaemia while Zoe pushes aside anything in her way of winning gold. Interestingly enough, when I went to read the blurb of the novel, the publisher doesn’t mention any of this. Instead, the blurb leads with this:
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.
But the problem with Gold is that I’ve summed up the entire plot in two sentences, and the book really just made me feel annoyed. There are two reasons for this: the narrative is not engaging and the characters are awful stereotypes.
Gold is designed to be a quick read: easy reading but with enough plot twists and love interests to keep you turning pages. But there are three main issues with that. Firstly, the narrative often feels incredible stilted and disjointed. I felt there were passages that needed much stronger editing to make the book read as the page-turner it sets out to be. For example, sentences such as ‘When Sophie was a Jedi knight was the only time she didn’t feel exhausted’, just do not read easily and though grammatically correct, they make the reader question whether it is and this pausing and stumbling affects the readers’experience.
Gold is written using a non-linear narrative, a technique used to build suspense at the upcoming plot twists. But these are hinted at so loudly before hand it’s like Cleave is banging a gong in the cavernous, reverberating velodrome where much of the novel takes place, only to turn around and say “oh, nothing”and run away. By the time the reader makes it to the great turning point, it’s been hinted at so much before hand that there’s no real shock when it is finally spelt out.
I also found the narrative at times wallowed in overly folksy language. The two male characters, Tom and Jack, are both bumbling men who are forgiven too quickly for mistakes made in their relationships. For example, a big deal is made of the father-daughter like camaraderie Tom has with Zoe and Kate, and that it’s a chance for him to make up for the errors he made in the relationship with his own child, but there is no exploration of this, and no real consequences for the choices he made. Tom is often treated with heavy-handed nostalgia that, rather than win me over, just made me roll my eyes: ‘Tom remembered when the gold medal used to be sold - but these days, what was?’
The real issue I had with Gold was the awful manner in which the female characters are portrayed. From the eight year old daughter, who’s stoicism towards her illness is heartwarming at first but then is laid on so thick that it just became inauthentic and glorified, to the two central characters, Zoe and Kate, who are treated with so little respect by Cleave that it’s frankly offensive. Giving the author the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he thought he was writing an interesting take on female friendships. But all he has done is play to the outdated stereotypes that women can only be one of two things: a ruthless, career hungry, childless bitch, or a sad, matryr-like mother. There are statements such as these from the ever-present media watching Zoe and Kate respectively:
Girls are inspired by these Games - my daughters are inspired by these Games - and they look to someone like Zoe for an example of how to be a successful female.
We hear statements like this in Australian media constantly when footballers behave badly, but what I objected to here was the possessive nature of the statement. ‘My daughters’, particularly with it’s italicisation, vilifies Zoe further by ladening the statement with the insinuation that she is separate from those who are parents, making her an outcast because she is competitive, which as a professional cyclist, makes her professional. Statements like this send a message to girls that success shouldn’t take priority over a “woman’s place”in the world and again, particularly when contrasted against Kate’s character, who is glorified and adored by the press for being a mother first and an athlete second. Though, again, I’m sure Cleave does not set out to be sexist and is in fact trying to say something interesting about this societal dynamic, when these words and judgements, even fictional, come from a male writer, they automatically become loaded. But what makes this worse is that a male character in the book, Jack, makes identical choices to that of Zoe and suffers absolutely no consequence, with absolutely no commentary about this by the author. It’s one thing to try and write about female friendships, but to succeed you need to acknowledge what shapes them and by ignoring judging his characters, rather than those who judge them, Cleave only condemns the women in Gold.
I am sure that this book would not have been published if the author set out to be inherently sexist, but by failing to recognise the sexist behaviours around the female characters of the book, it becomes so itself. The fact that this book was edited by a woman is completely baffling to me, but that deserves a whole other discussion. The stilted and overly aware narrative in Gold is one thing, but creating a story that tries to talk about female relationships but instead only panders to outdated stereotypes makes for not only a disappointing read, but also an offensive one. At the end of this book I still did not understand why it needed to be Chris Cleave to tell this story - what could he bring that others, particularly female novelists, could not? What Cleave ultimately fails to do is recognise that it is incredibly difficult to tell stories that are not within your own experience. It takes incredible skill, research and a deft hand to write someone else’s story, but it also requires a form of permission. Chris Cleave most certainly does not have mine.
When I first started cutting wheat out of my diet, one of the first things I noticed (because sometimes your sweet tooth speaks the loudest) is that every time I went to buy a piece of cake, it was inevitably orange and almond cake. There is actually a great variety of cakes you can make without using flour or by using gluten free alternatives, but this seems to be the most reliable and therefore absolutely everywhere. I actually hate talking about my food intolerances, because a) it’s incredibly boring for me and for whoever’s listening; b) I’d rather talk about what I can and do eat; and c) it actually only ever comes up in conversation when it’s your birthday or occasionally when you’re out with friends and have to admit that you can’t eat dumplings. If you also think it’s incredibly boring, I implore you to listen to one of my all-time favourite episodes of This American Life: The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed To Talk About (just trust me on this one). But if you’re not completely bored by orange and almond cake, I think you’ll love this orange and almond granola.
Recently I’ve been trying to be more organised and disciplined in the morning, and one thing that’s helping is making a batch of granola on Sunday. It means breakfast is organised for the week, and it’s also really fun experimenting with different flavour combinations. From a base recipe you can try all sorts of different nuts, fruits and sweeteners, depending on what’s at hand or what looks interesting at the deli. But this combination has been my favourite. Combine two cups of rolled oats, half a cup of chopped almonds, one quarter of a cup each of sunflower seeds and pepitas, the zest and juice of one small orange, a tablespoon of honey and a generous tablespoon of olive or coconut oil. Mix it together and then bake at 180 degrees for 15 minutes, stirring halfway through the cooking to make sure nothing catches. Take it out of the oven to cool, mixing in half a cup of chopped dried apricots. You’ll need to keep stirring it on the tray every few minutes as it cools to stop it from sticking. Once it’s completely cool it will have crisped up and turned slightly more golden than when it came out of the oven. Store in an air-tight container ready for quick week-day breakfasts, with yoghurt, fruit and a splash of milk.