Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Sweet Girl

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon (Random House Canada), 256 pages
This book may be read as a companion piece to Lyon's prior novel The Golden Mean, a well received and loved precursor. You may read a review of it here. It follows the imagined life of Aristotle's daughter Pythias before, and after, the death of her father in the latter part of the 4th c. B.C.

The relationship is gentle, affectionate and charmingly evoked. He is proud of her keen intellect and curiosity; she is protective of, and solicitous towards, her father. Lyon achieves this easily by employing a very natural style of dialogue that flows beautifully and resembles modern speech.

There are no arcane or awkwardly worded passages that prevent enjoyment of the narrative or are overly hampered with historical references. Her descriptions are beautiful, clearly worded, and invite the reader into an easy understanding of the mores of the time.

Historical information is subtly communicated such as the casual reference to Pythias being veiled in public. Of course, you think, as a young girl she would be veiled. Pythias' language towards the slaves is sometimes dismissive, sometimes harsh, while irksome, this too appears realistic for a young girl of her station. Aristotle's colleagues are pleasantly surprised by Pythias' intelligence, and slightly amused.

When Aristotle dies following an ill-advised icy swim from which he never recovers. She is "bequeathed" to Nicanor, a near relation, a soldier, who has been away at war for many years, in his will.

The teenage Pythias is then unhappily thrown into a precarious situation. Herpyllis, the woman who raised Pythias after her mother died, is a former slave elevated by her intimate relationship with Aristotle and has becoem his concubine. However, she has no rights within the household after his death although she is adequately provided for and soon departs. Pythias' prospective husband Nicanor is still at war. Pythias' brother (son of Aristotle and Herpyllis) is too young to assume leadership in the family home which, incidentally, has been loaned to them by an admirer when they are forced to flee from Athens after the death of Alexander the Great. The Macedonians were soon persecuted with the death of the king, who as a Macedonian, served as a protector of other Macedonians against the conquered Greeks in the empire.

She is a teenage girl in a house largely full of unruly servants and slaves.The second half of the book stumbles a bit (at the exact point at which Aristotle dies). Pythias' emotional journey after Aristotle's death is treacherous. She moves from her own home to self imposed homelessness, flirting with a role as a priestess, as a prostitute, as a midwife. She experiments sexually and flaunts convention. This is done in an emotionless manner, her intention is unclear (as is Lyon's). Is she shell-shocked by her father's death? Does she feel abandoned? Is her behavior, in a manner, joyful? Does she feel liberated from patriarchal restraints?

Is it Lyon's view that without the protection of a patriarch (Aristotle and/or her future husband) or a matriarch (Herpyllis), the unprotected female descends into these positions of dependency, exploitation or abuse? As if to underline Pythias' status being akin to slavery as a young, unmarried female, the last act that Pythias performs in the novel is to set her favoured slave Tychos free.

Pythias only regains her equilibrium when Nicanor returns from the wars to marry her, which appears a contradiction to Pythias' independent manner and life. Nicanor, meanwhile, is reluctant to engage with her sexually and this is never explained fully. She is merely puzzled, not dismayed, not concerned. Is it because she views their sexual relations as yet another obligation, as a female, she is not eager to engage in.

For me, the ending is flat, uneventful, with the empowering of Tychos as a freed slave and Pythias seemingly settling in as a wife to Nicanor. Despite Lyon's obvious great talents as a writer, the meaning of this resolution is obscure and unsatisfying. 

Annabel Lyon

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