I hadn’t previously come across Annabel Lyon’s books before reading her new release The Sweet Girl, although apparently she is very much the up and coming writer on the Canadian literary scene. She started out as an author of short stories and novellas, with her debut novel The Golden Mean first published in 2009; it became an award winner and best-seller in Canada, as well as being a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The Golden Mean was about about the relationship between Alexander the Great and his tutor Aristotle, while The Sweet Girl, billed a sequel to the first novel, moves on to look at Aristotle’s home life and beloved only daughter in his later years.
As the novel opens, things are not going all that well for Aristotle. Although famed as a teacher and philosopher in his adopted city of Athens, his wife has died and he is feeling the effects of ageing on his body. He has taken a concubine, Herpyllis, who has given him a son, Nico; although a good boy, Nico has none of the intelligence that Aristotle would have loved to have seen in his only son. Instead, it is his daughter Pytho who has taken after him. She reads and writes well, can follow the debates she overhears him having with his colleagues and students, and has read all of her father’s work while still a child. He loves his unusual daughter, and encourages her to learn. However, as she approaches puberty, Pytho finds things change for her – she is now a woman to be restricted by society rather than a child to play and learn with her father. For all Aristotle’s interest in medicine and claims that “the body is not disgusting”, she must hide her menstruation from him. The arrival of a poor – and male – cousin to be fostered by the family further takes her father’s attention away from Pytho.
Further upheaval arrives in Pytho’s life via the shocking news that the King, Alexander the Great, has died while campaigning in a faraway country. Athens at this time was just one part of the empire that Alexander built, and with his death comes an upsurge of ill-feeling against the Macedonians living in the city – people such as Aristotle and his family. They flee to the garrison town of Chalcis, but things are now taking their toll on the aged philosopher. After a swim in the island’s straights to observe a strange local phenomenon with the currents, he falls ill with pneumonia and dies not long afterwards. Herpyllis, now freed from the household, returns home to her family. Nico, still a young boy, is sent back to Aristotle’s school in Athens to continue his education. Pytho, just sixteen years old and now an orphan, is left to try and cope in a world where those who once treated her as a lady are quick to try and take advantage of an impoverished young woman stripped of male protection.
While this novel is clearly linked by the presence of Aristotle to The Golden Mean, the description of The Sweet Girl as a sequel is a bit misleading – they are certainly connected, but the story from the first book does not directly continue in the second. It is perfectly possible to read this book as a stand-alone novel; the only prior knowledge you need is that Aristotle once taught Alexander, and that is told to the reader early in this book. Lyon clearly has a great respect for and knowledge of the philosopher, and when we reach his death around halfway through The Sweet Girl, I did wonder how she would cope with such a loss from the narrative, given that Pytho hadn’t come across nearly as emphatically as her father thus far. The answer, unfortunately, was “not all that well”.
The second half of the book concerns Pytho’s quest to find a way to survive as an independent unmarried woman in Ancient Greece, a place where the options open to her were very limited. She wafts from one to another, each short-lived and unsuccessful, as more of a study of the underground economy behind classical civilisation than a compelling story about an intelligent woman trying to make a life on her own. For character supposedly driven by her wits and education, she seems awfully passive and unable to make good decisions. I started warming to Pytho when she was a bright child, but like her father grew away from her as she become a woman; I really wanted to like her and this story, but I found it an un-engaging and curiously flat affair.
The writing in The Sweet Girl, while at times insightful, too often felt detached and even bland. I found it hard to become absorbed in the story or feel much of a sense of atmosphere in it, as much as the subject matter interested me. I was unfortunately disappointed with The Sweet Girl, and as much as The Golden Mean has drawn critical praise to it, I think I am unlikely to try it having read this first.
The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon
Published by Atlantic Books in the UK from January 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing this review copy.
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