Contest nominee looks at atheletes’ journey

This is a big year for Canada Reads, the national CBC Radio contest which selects the must-read book of the year.

This is a big year for Canada Reads, the national CBC Radio contest which selects the must-read book of the year.

This week-long debate features celebrities backing their favourite of the five nominees, debating the merits of each as potential winners are eliminated one by one.

But even after 10 years, the annual contest still has some fresh selections to offer.

One of the lesser-known entries this year is The Bone Cage by first-time novelist Angie Abdou. This is a book about high-level athletes, written by an athlete and championed by an athlete, former NHL heavyweight and bruiser, Georges Laraque.

In The Bone Cage, a swimmer and a wrestler from the University of Calgary make it through a long and gruelling process and are selected for the Olympic team. With just six months left before the competition, Sadie and Digger are pushing their bodies to the limit.

For both, the Olympics will be the pinnacle of years of grinding, monotonous and often lonely hours of training.

The story isn’t a feel-good read about the road to success. The Bone Cage documents the true deprivation, hardship and heartache that athletes endure simply for a chance to step on the podium.

Before each competition Digger and his wrestling mates don plastic suits and ride stationary bikes in the sauna. Attempting to drop kilos, they willingly sweat themselves into severe dehydration. Their lips crack and tongues swell as they attempt to reduce into their weight category. In some cases, they wind up in the hospital instead of on the wrestling mat.

At 26, Sadie still lives with her parents so she can wake at 5 a.m. each morning and plunge into the pool. She’s memorized each crack and wad of gum on the bottom of the pool as she spends hours, days and weeks battling boredom and fatigue, pushing just a bit faster through the water.

Right from the beginning, it’s clear that the author, Abdou, is a high-level athlete. Her background as a competitive swimmer brings an authenticity to her compelling descriptions. More than that, the story arc is linear, much like a race, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

Abdou reminds us that the finish line for any athlete, whether they reach the podium or not, holds both great joy and a sense of loss. All athletes eventually come to a point when their bone cage fails them and they are, in a sense, defeated.

The other books in the Canada Reads contest are: Unless by Carol Shields, The Birth House by Ami McKay, Essex County by Jeff Lemire and The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis. Unless the other celebs are intimidated by Laraque, it’s anybody’s guess who will win next week’s contest.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader living in Penticton.