Annabel Lyon. The Sweet Girl. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2012.
In his life of Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius claims to have “stumbled upon” (περιετύχομεν) a copy of the philosopher’s will, recording provisions to be made for his household—his children, concubine, slaves, and property. His daughter Pythias, this will records, is to be given in marriage to one Nicanor. Out of this provision, and the societal structures surrounding it, Annabel Lyon constructs The Sweet Girl.
Lyon’s debut novel, The Golden Mean, dealt with Aristotle’s relationship with Alexander the Great during the latter’s childhood in Macedonia. Here, Aristotle reappears as an aging genius: kind to his children, witty, inconsistent, eccentric, and, as he sickens and dies, erratic. We see these facets through the eyes of Pythias, whose sharp mind and voracious curiosity equal her father’s. Faster than her brother at reading, fascinated by her father’s dissections, quick to remember herbs and remedies—Pythias possesses a formidible intellect.
So far, so typical: historical fiction is full of intelligent young proto-feminists who demand education, win respect from men, perhaps even disguise themselves as boys and have adventures. In their laudable effort to expose the injustices of the past, authors can often project very modern sentiments about what a woman’s role in society should be.
Lyon, however, makes her heroine’s unusual education plausible within the context of a patriarchal society—perhaps, even, a tool with which that society reinforces its values. Early in the book, seven-year-old Pythias sits in on a meeting of her father and his students, at which they discuss her brilliance. “‘A freak'” declares one student. “‘She’s not representative of her sex. She’s the exception that proves the rule'” (17). Pythias is an experiment, a conversation starter. By the time Pythias reaches puberty, Aristotle, although clearly fond of his daughter, has no idea what to do or how to relate with her. She becomes an outcast from male/intellectual society, an outsider among women.
The book’s trajectory as an exploration of father-daughter relationships shifts abruptly when Alexander the Great dies and public sentiment in Athens turns against Macedonians. Aristotle and his family depart, and the philosopher dies shortly afterwards. Pythias is left to wait for Nicanor to return from the east, making her way however she can. What follows is a journey into the seedier side of Greek life, equal parts fascinating and dizzying. Pythias must confront poverty, betrayal, the gods, and her own sexuality.
Lyon’s writing is often elliptical—perhaps appropriate for a narrator supposed to have learned to write from Aristotle—and her evocations of antiquity deft. There are no ethnographic tangents into architecture, diet, religious customs carefully explained. (The one exception, possibly, being a litany of Athenian slang for sexual positions not seen since Fishcakes and Courtesans.) Characters speak with a modern rhythm, using words like “Daddy,” “tiptoes,” “shiny,” but avoiding clearly dated idioms. The gods put in an appearance on occasion; initially this is jarring, but later it becomes a powerful way to evoke Pythias’ disorientation.
The Sweet Girl is a pleasure, beautifully written and full of surprising turns.