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
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
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
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.