It was on NPR I learned of the new novel, "The Sweet Girl," by Canadian writer Annabel Lyon. The reviewer had praise for the book, which tells the story of the daughter of Aristotle -- Pythias -- who becomes orphaned at the death of her father when she is 16. But the reviewer had even higher praise to Lyon's prequel to that effort, "The Golden Mean," which tells the story of philosopher Aristotle's relationship with his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great -- in the first person, in Aristotle's voice. So I chose to read "The Golden Mean" first and found Lyon's achievement remarkable.
Near the beginning of this work, there is a passage when Aristotle first arrives to tutor the Alexander for the first time and discovers him sniffing about Aristotle's caravan. Lyon writes as Aristotle: "I notice a boy -- thirteen, maybe -- wandering amongst the carts. Rain plastered hair, ruddy skin, eyes big as a calf's. When the boy tries to help with one of the cages, a chameleon as it happens, I call, `Get away from there.' And more gently when the boy turns to look at me in amazement: `He'll bite you.' The boy smiles, `Me?' "
Aristotle then orders the boy to "Get me a stick." Aristotle notes, "Again that look of amazement." The young warrior Alexander is not used to being ordered about.
"The Golden Mean" has won Lyon numerous awards for her male-voiced novel. It has been translated into numerous languages, including one translation for the lost tribes of Papua New Guinea. But along the way it apparently was rejected by a foreign publisher "as the novel read as though it had been written by a man."
My curiosity about Lyon the author (and mother of two toddlers), who has so convincingly created her two narratives set in a time 2,300 years ago, led me to order online a lecture she gave last year in Alberta, Canada called "Imagining Ancient Women. Her explanations are worth sharing.
"To an ancient Greek, I am a man," she writes. "I operate in my society with all the freedom that a man in the ancient world would have operated in his. Virtually every door that is open to a man in my society is open to me, and if I were to find one closed, I have a wealth of tools at my disposal -- cultural, political, legal -- to force it open."
Lyon writes with compassion not only of Aristotle but of his wife, Pythias. "Women in ancient Greece," she continues in her lecture, "were considerably less than second-class citizens. They couldn't vote or own property; they were usually illiterate (Aristotle educated Pythias); they could expect to marry at the onset of menstruation and die in childbirth," as did Pythias soon after the birth of little Pythias in "The Golden Mean." Lyon takes up the life of the orphaned Pythias in her sequel novel, "The Sweet Girl." Lyon had to build a narrative knowing only that Aristotle had willed Pythias to marry a much older cousin, Nicanor, who was off at war.
Lyon was helped along with a first trip to Athens touring with Canadian professors, where she manages in museums to take in objects "so unremarkable, so every day, so practical, so unbeautiful" that were a part of women's lives, including carved images of midwives assisting women in labor. She had to put Pythias into a "world of women and slaves and kitchens, the world of magic and superstition."
But Lyon also "wanted to find a way to give Pythias power," she writes, "to give her the resources to act as a man in world of men."
"I wanted to write a contemporary novel that happened to be set 2,300 years ago," she writes of her first book, "The Golden Mean." I believe she has done so again in her sequel, "The Sweet Girl."
I have grown up with a love of all the glory that is ancient Greece, but Annabel Lyon has put me in the room with these extraordinary characters, in conversation with them. I want the conversation to continue.