The Sweet Girl
By Annabel Lyon. Random House Canada, 236 pp, hardcover
With the tedious exception of the male midlife crisis, few literary subjects have been more thoroughly explored than the coming-of-age narrative. Indeed, the passage from childhood into adult life has even spawned its own genre, young-adult fiction.
But if you’re guessing that the subject has been done to death, guess again. A girl’s transition into womanhood is at the heart of Annabel Lyon’s new novel, and the Vancouver-based author of 2009’s The Golden Mean has triumphed yet again.
The Sweet Girl could easily be seen as a successor to Lyon’s surprise bestseller. The setting—Athens and its environs, circa 350 BC—is the same, and some characters overlap: the titular girl is Pythias, daughter of the philosopher and scientist Aristotle, who was The Golden Mean’s central figure. But Girl is a shorter, stronger, and, yes, sweeter effort. While The Golden Mean read at times like an exercise in fictionalizing philosophical constructs, Lyon has given her new heroine a voice that’s warm and tender and questioning and very, very smart.
She’s also managed to pack, without effort or pretence, a horde of contemporary references into her work of historical fiction. The veiled and chaperoned women of ancient Greece call to mind the burqa-clad inhabitants of today’s Kandahar. Following the death of her father and her family’s subsequent impoverishment, Pythias sells herself to stay alive, a fate she has in common with many of today’s female dispossessed. And Lyon’s men—easy-tongued predators, complacent exploiters, and damaged warriors—are also familiar, although few today fully embody the divine. (The moment when Dionysus manifests himself to Pythias in the form of a handsome cavalry officer is thrillingly erotic, not at all explicit, and one of The Sweet Girl’s most powerful passages.)
It’s the storytelling that is truly godlike, though. Sexy equestrians aside, there are no clichés in this coming-of-age fable, just memorable characters and some very human truths.