Is it acceptable to describe a work of fiction as tender and warm? It has to be. Because while words such as mesmerising and heart-felt are often used (also moving and touching), only warm and tender do justice to this amazingly subtle work of historical fiction.
Annabel Lyon has told a very domestic story from the point of view of an intelligent and somewhat attractive 16-year-old girl. What makes the story so remarkable is that it is set in Ancient Greece and its teenaged narrator is Pythias, the daughter of Aristotle. The Aristotle. He who requires no introduction.
But instead of a hefty 700-page tome filled with lengthy descriptions of the sights and sounds of Athens in 350BCE, Lyons has told her tale in a very concise 236 pages. The reader gets the very clear impression that each word and phrase has been very carefully sifted by the author. Athens is in the background, the reader is welcome to do their own research. What is central to this novel is a household and the beloved girl who lives in it. She adores her father and their tight-knit family, but is about to lose both due to fate and political circumstance.
Her character is so powerfully drawn that while reading her story I did not bother to check if the facts presented in it were historically correct. Did Aristotle even have a daughter? I did not care to know; at some level fact-checking seemed disrespectful to Lyon’s creative effort.
After the last page had been read and the book reluctantly closed, I turned to Google. Yes, as it turns out, Aristotle did indeed have a daughter who grew to adulthood and her name was Pythias. We know of her, as well as Aristotle’s concubine Herpyllis, their son Nico, and his various slaves, from Aristotle’s will which was recorded by Diogenes Laertius.
Lyon has written an earlier novel which also deals with Ancient Greece. The Golden Mean (2009) gives an account of Aristotle’s relationship with his most famous student, Prince Alexander of Macedonia, or as he is better known to later generations, Alexander the Great.
But this time he is simply ‘Daddy’. In the beginning that term seemed incredibly absurd — imagine a Greek girl in 4th century BCE calling her father Daddy! But as one got further along in the narrative it started to make sense. This is Pythias’s story first and foremost, told in her voice and providing her point of view. Her father is a secondary character so it makes no difference what he is called as long as it is clear that they shared a strong, affectionate bond.
The repeated references to Daddy also help to link the historical fiction to the present day. They make the reader realise that what happens to Pythias is by no means a unique situation that occurred at a unique time in history. It is a universal human tragedy of xenophobia, refugees, avarice and plain bad luck that plays itself out over and over again in every age.
So what happens to Pythias is this: She has grown up in Athens with her loving family. Her father brags about her intelligence to his scholar friends, while Herpyllis dotes on her. Life is idyllic until the year she turns 16, when news arrives that Alexander has died in Babylon. Relieved to be free of the Macedonian conqueror, Athenians begin to harass all the Macedonians living in their city, including the great scholar. So after paying a tearful final visit to his Lyceum, he hastily departs the city with his family and a select few of their belongings.
They arrive on the Greek island of Euboia and are just starting to settle in when Daddy passes away. According to his will, Herpyllis goes away to live with her sister and Nico is sent back to the academy in Athens. Pythias finds herself left all alone to manage the house and slaves. She also finds that the seemingly friendly new neighbours — the magistrate, the soldier, and the widow — have started to show their true colours.
Surrounded by predators and discovering that all her money has been stolen, she supports herself through all the professions that were open to women at the time. She works as a midwife in a brothel, a priestess in a temple, even a high-class call girl. In her sleep she sometimes dreams of the happier days but continues the struggle to maintain her household until her 44-year-old betrothed returns physically wounded and mentally scarred from years on the battlefield.
How is this tragic tale warm and tender? It all has to do with Lyon’s telling of it. Despite all that befalls her there remains dignity and sweetness in the protagonist, as well as calm and wisdom beyond her years. There’s no beating of the chest, no decrying the gods or Fate. She, the daughter of one of the world’s greatest minds, struggles alone and unprotected but does not expect to be acclaimed a hero for it. She lives in seedy quarters, walks in filthy alleys, and experiences first-hand the soiled underside of society, yet somehow she is sure that it could be worse.
“Here, in the cold street with Tycho, these feel like my last moments of —what? The end of one life and the beginning of another. Lesser; another lesser life. That’s what I fear. That’s what keeps me out here, in the cold. Yet less than what? Did I have so much without knowing it? What did I have before that I don’t have now, that I could possibly recover in this world?”
One would like to think that if she ever came to own a chariot, the bumper sticker on it would read: S**t Happens.
The Sweet Girl
By Annabel Lyon
Random House, Canada