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Monday, November 9, 2015

"The Golden Mean" by Annabel Lyon, Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award Winner


Last week, Annabel Lyon was awarded the Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award which ”is given to a mid-career writer in recognition of a remarkable body of work, and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian literature. Writers are judged on their body of work – no less than three works of literary merit which are predominantly fiction – rather than a single book” (http://www.writerstrust.com/Awards/Writers--Trust-Notable-Author-Award.aspx).

 Lyon is probably best known for her first novel, The Golden Mean, a bestseller in Canada that won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, was shortlisted for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a Governor General’s Literary Award, and has been translated into 14 languages.  Here are notes I made about that book which I read back in May of 2010.

Review of The Golden Mean
This book imagines the life of Aristotle through the philosopher’s eyes.  The focus is on the years Aristotle served as Alexander the Great’s tutor, imagining the real-life teacher/student relationship.  Aristotle believed that philosophical contemplation was the greatest form of human activity, and he was appointed tutor to the heir of a regime based almost entirely on war and conquest. 

Both Aristotle and Alexander have their demons.  Aristotle is a lonely thinker in a world that prizes soldiers, and he suffers from bouts of debilitating depression; in modern psychology, he would be bipolar.  Alexander has two faces, one for the public and one in the private sessions with his tutor.  After battles, he suffers from “soldier’s heart” which we would call post-traumatic stress disorder.

Aristotle’s depression may account for his prescription of happiness:  striving to maintain the Golden Mean, the middle of two emotional extremes.  The author does not delve into his other theories, although the novel ends with Aristotle asking about the perfect tragedy, thereby foreshadowing his Poetica.

Aristotle’s relationship with women shows his lack of emotional maturity.  He examines his wife’s genitalia in detail but rarely makes eye contact.  He believes women incapable of experiencing pleasure from sex.

Stylistically, the book is divided into five chapters, like a play, with some modern-day profanity which is jarring. 

In the award citation, the judges commented on this book:  “Aristotle and his contemporaries gain living flesh – as fathers, as rivals, as sometimes brutish and ignorant, as people with failing bodies and working kitchens. The wild violence of the period is unflinchingly documented” (http://www.writerstrust.com/Awards/Writers--Trust-Notable-Author-Award.aspx).