The opening pages of Annabel Lyon’s second novel feature seven-year-old Pythias, the daughter of Aristotle, dissecting a lamb under her father’s watchful gaze. The young girl, almost preternaturally curious, has been denied the right to carry the sacrificial knife into the temple because of her gender; little Pythias’s determination to transcend the roles society has carved out for her will prove to be the source of both her strength and frustration as she advances into womanhood.
The Sweet Girl returns readers to the world of ancient Greece that served as the setting for Lyon’s previous novel, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award winner The Golden Mean. When Alexander the Great, once his student, dies, Aritstotle and his family are forced to flee the city for the garrison town of Chalcis. When Aristotle himself dies, Pythias is left on her own to find a place in a world that does not accommodate her independence, and seems intent on corrupting her.
The novel presents a detailed and carefully wrought milieu that feels at once true to its time and startling in the ways it resonates with our modern world. Pythias’s experiences are never far removed from the matter of her gender, and it is telling that the only place her wit is permitted to flourish is in the ad hoc brothel where she provides sexual services to prominent town citizens.
Lyon is a highly disciplined writer, but that very discipline tends to work against her here. The story sets up a series of binary oppositions – duty vs. desire; science vs. superstition; loyalty vs. betrayal – then tries to chart a course between and among them. The result is a tightly calibrated narrative, but there is never much in the way of surprise or discovery for the reader. At every step, it is possible to hear the gears turning and detect the author manipulating the levers that animate her characters and plot.
What is missing most is any sense of shock or abandon. Aristotle advocated adherence to the Golden Mean: the rational middle ground between a set of extremes. This is sound philosophy for a satisfied life, but it doesn’t work terribly well for fiction, which often relies on those very extremes for its interest.