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Annabel Lyon at the International Festival of Authors Parry Sound

Annabel Lyon will read from her book The Sweet Girl in Parry Sound on Monday 29 October at the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts, along with authors Ned Beauman, Susan Swan and Miranda Hill. This review was written by Gillian Holden a member the International Festival of Authors, Parry Sound committee, presenters of this event.

The Golden Mean, written by Annabel Lyon, is a remarkable first novel. It is told in the voice of the ancient philosopher Aristotle, presenting his perceptions of events experienced, and opinions about people with whom he comes into contact. Lyon provides extensive and detailed information about the customs, foods and ways of life of the Macedonians and ancient Greeks, all woven smoothly into the story of the relationship between Aristotle and Alexander the Great.

The story opens as Aristotle and his first wife (married at ages 37 and 15 respectively) reach Pella, the capital of Macedon, en route to Athens where Aristotle plans to study and teach. However, their journey is postponed indefinitely, as they are waylaid in Pella by King Philip, father of the thirteen year old Alexander. Philip's wish is to detain Aristotle so he can become another of Alexander's tutors. As the years pass, Aristotle's desire to continue on to Athens is thwarted more than once. Politics and war, falling out of and then back into, the king's favour all conspire to prevent him from following his chosen path.

A common theme in the novel is the suggestion that Aristotle suffered from depression, or perhaps experienced bipolar disorder. Early on he refers to it as a sickness with no name, diagnosis, or treatment. Another thread that weaves through the story is the fascination Aristotle has with dissection. He regularly dissects the bodies of all kinds of creatures, maintains collections of living and dead specimens, and performs dissections while some are still alive. The scene in which he dissects a fallen Theban on the battlefield is utterly engrossing and darkly comic. Knowing that his time is limited, Aristotle has colleagues running to fetch wax tablets so that he may draw what he sees before the Thebans come to collect their fallen comrade for the funeral pyre. Even Alexander, who first invited Aristotle to the battle, becomes completely lost in the process.

Finally, as the novel draws to a close, Aristotle and his small family (second wife, common-law, daughter and son) set out on the journey to Athens where he will realize his dream of directing the Lyceum, his own school.

This is where Lyon's second novel about this famous man begins. Titled The Sweet Girl, it is told in the voice of Pythia, Aristotle's daughter by his first wife. She has been born into a world in which her choices are extremely limited, yet her father educates her himself, and allows her to argue with the philosophers who comprise his group of colleagues.

Unfortunately the family is forced to flee Athens when Greek sentiment turns against Macedonians. They travel to a garrison town near Aristotle's birthplace and after a brief period of happiness, Pythia's world collapses following the death of her father at age 61. She is only 16 and not equipped to run a household and rule over the family servants and slaves who, in short order, resort to leading lives of debauchery, robbing the household of its stores and selling Pythia's jewelry to finance their new tastes in meat and wine. Moreover, her first love, a boy given a home and education by her father, betrays her.

Pythia becomes apprenticed to a midwife, a period in her life in which she gains a great deal of knowledge about sex, pregnancy and childbirth. She then resorts to prostitution in order to survive, becoming the 'daughter' of a madam in the village, who had befriended her soon after the family's arrival. Ultimately, Pythia is saved from this lifestyle by the arrival of her first cousin, a man 28 years older, who has been betrothed to her through her father's will.

Reading these two books, I was struck by the juxtaposition between father and daughter, the choices each is allowed and how those choices affect their respective lives. As a girl, Pythia is extremely limited in options – midwifery, prostitution or marriage, even though she is highly educated (has read all of her father's books) and well connected. Aristotle, on the other hand, has access to the world of great thinkers and the permission of society to pursue his learning in science and philosophy.

Lyon convincingly writes both books in the first person, and draws her readers deep into the lives of both father and daughter. The portrayal of ancient life, with its daily details and mores, is vivid. This is a fine pair of highly readable, extremely informative and thought provoking novels.

Don’t miss the International Festival of Authors Parry Sound, Monday 29 October at 7:30 pm. There are a limited number of tickets available for those who wish to attend a reception with the authors prior to the readings. Contact Parry Sound Books for tickets and more information.

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