I approached The Golden Mean with some trepidation; although it’s one of the most acclaimed novels in Canada this year, I had just had a pithy review from a friend whose taste I trust: “I just read The Golden Mean and absolutely hated it!” In this case, however, I’ll have to plant my vote against my friend and with the majority of literary critics: I found The Golden Mean completely absorbing.
How can any lover of history and historical novels resist a book about Aristotle tutoring the young Alexander (not-yet-the-Great) of Macedon? Such a concept could fail only if the writer’s execution of it failed, and Lyon’s succeeds almost flawlessly.
The prose is terse, spare, and beautiful, every word carefully chosen. Aristotle is the first-person narrator, and Lyon does a great job of bringing the reader into one of the most brilliant, original, restless minds in history. Aristotle is a genius — he never stops thinking, wondering, trying to figure things out — but also a very real and human man, suffering from bouts of depression (Lyon hints at a possible diagnosis of bipolar disorder for the great philosopher), succumbing to fear and uncertainty at times.
She does the same with Alexander as seen through the eyes of his teacher. He’s a bright, moody, difficult, tyrannical teenager, and it’s not hard to see in him the seeds of the restless, troubled conqueror who would rule much of the known world by the time he was thirty and be dead by thirty-three.
The “golden mean” of the title is the sought-after balance between extremes. The real genius, and the hardest thing to achieve, with any historical fiction, is to strike a balance between bringing the reader into a world that is truly different, ancient and alien, and yet have characters to whom a modern reader can relate. Stray too far in one direction, and you end up with modern characters in period dress, going through the motions of life in a distant era but thinking just like we do. Too far in the other, and you’ve got a novel that is meticulous in attention to historical detail, but completely uninteresting to read, since the characters feel so alien we cannot care about them.
Annabel Lyon has found her own golden mean with this novel. There is never a moment when the reader is not aware that these characters are breathing a completely different air from ours, living in a world with different assumptions about class, gender, sex, violence and … well, pretty much everything. And yet they are, while alien, absolutely approachable: there is a core of humanness there that we can connect with despite the passage of more than two millennia.
Part of this is achieved through Lyons’ use of very informal, modern-sounding dialogue. Some readers of historical fiction don’t like this; they cringe if a character in ancient Greece says “okay,” because that’s inauthentic. I like it. Whatever word the ancient Greeks used when they meant “okay,” it conveyed the same feeling and intention we convey when we say “okay,” so it’s okay with me. What’s really inauthentic is not modern language but modern ways of thinking — a girl in a historical novel, for example, rebelling not just against her father’s choice of suitor for her but against the whole system of arranged marriages.
This is a trap into which Lyon does not fall. Her Aristotle is a man ahead of, but not outside of, his own time. So, for example, while he is horrified by the violence of war which rules the lives of men like Alexander and Philip, and much prefers the contemplative life of a scholar, he does not question the value of war and soldiers in society, or doubt that a leader must be first and foremost a military leader.
With a brilliant evocation of a fascinating historical era and its people, and language that shimmers and glows on every page, Annabel Lyon deserves every accolade she’s received for The Golden Mean.