Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lyon's sequel bit bumpy, but what a ride it is...

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION 
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

The Sweet Girl
By Annabel Lyon
Random House Canada, 236 pages, $30

A sequel to her much-ballyhooed The Golden Mean (2009), B.C. writer Annabel Lyon's The Sweet Girl is also a coming-of-age novel.

The first explored the prime of the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century BCE, the second a tumultuous year in the life of his teenage daughter, Pythias.

The first is about striving for balance, the second, the struggle to survive.

Rest assured, The Sweet Girl - recently longlisted for Canada's Giller Prize -  has inherited its predecessor's marvellous ability to wheel between the mind and the body, between thinking and feeling. It is just as canny, just as agonizing, just as alive.

But in The Sweet Girl, gods literally walk the earth. They are not Aristotle's "metaphysical necessity ... remote and oblivious and lost in contemplation," but lurid and powerful realities.

Which, if you're keeping track, makes this both magic realism-tinged fiction and historical fiction.
In addition, where Aristotle's story featured a bipolar polymath forced to learn control, to find focus, Pythias's revolves around class and gender and is steeped in chaos.

Early in the novel, Pythias calls herself "Daddy's Shadow," and it's true, their household revolves around Aristotle's work and his (declining) health.

Pythias is both stubbornly intelligent and much-loved, a combination that allows her to resist the roles assigned to women in ancient Greece while her father is alive.

After he dies and the household disperses, Pythias must somehow step out from behind Aristotle's long shadow, lift her veil, and speak.

This means somehow reconciling her honeyed childhood with the rawness of life as a woman with no money and few choices.

Structurally, the Vancouver-based Lyon, who studied classical music, philosophy and law, has taken a few risks in The Sweet Girl.

The first half of the novel is business as usual, charting Pythias's childhood in Athens and her family's flight to Macedonia after Alexander the Great dies while on campaign in Babylon (what is now Iraq).

The second half is both more and less controlled. The grieving Pythias finds herself unwilling to return to Athens and live in the household of Theophrastos, Aristotle's protégé and successor at the Lyceum.

Theophrastos has opinions about the education of girls, which would mean Pythias's days would be spent at the loom instead of conducting dissections or reading.
So instead Pythias attempts to maintain Aristotle's household while waiting for the man her father wanted her to marry - an older cousin who is a soldier in Alexander's army -  to return home.

She fails, of course. She is 16, with no experience running an estate, no allies, and, most important, no money.

And so she becomes an acolyte at a temple of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and protector of young girls. Disheartened by the avarice of the priestesses, she becomes an apprentice to the local midwife/abortionist and then, briefly, a prostitute.

Pythias has just reconciled herself to the realities of her new life when her prospective husband arrives, battle-scarred and deeply exhausted.

She is lucky. Her fiancé doesn't care about Pythias's sexual history or her bookish pursuits. But like Mary Anning, the 19th-century fossil hunter in Winnipegger Joan Thomas's 2010 novel Curiosity, Pythias will never be able to truly transcend class and gender.

Though The Sweet Girl ultimately succeeds in telling a story that is both the same as and different enough from The Golden Mean, readers might find themselves wondering why Pythias considers prostitution to be a better option than a few months of safe boredom.

Also, the second half of the novel is both exhilarating and a burr under the book's saddle. It is both too formulaic and too bumpy.

But, oh, what a ride!

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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