In her first novel, Annabel Lyon brilliantly re-imagines the real-life teacher/student relationship between Aristotle and a 13-year-old boy who would soon transform the world as Alexander the Great.
The novel opens with Aristotle taking his wife and nephew to Pella, capital of Macedon. By the end of the first chapter, Aristotle encounters the young Alexander and learns that he is to become the boy’s tutor. The novel’s five-chapter structure is meant to remind us of the acts of a play, but it also acts as a classical rhetorical construct designed to persuade the reader, “winning the soul through discourse.”
Lyon depicts Alexander as a bright, ostensibly rough-and-tumble teenager who must be physically trained for leadership and war, yet who is also internally frail and lonely. There is a tension between the public face Alexander puts on and the “different boy” Aristotle sees in their private sessions, who is “tense, intense . . . angry, curious, pompous, charming, driven.” For his part, Aristotle confesses, “I love to be on the inside, the backside, the underside of anything, and see the usually unseen.”
Over the next six years, the worlds of this man and boy collide, combine, oppose, and complement each other. Aristotle’s narrative expands to include brief, delightfully realized diversions into history, biology, science, literature, medicine, politics, and philosophy. The novel is full of vivid descriptions and impressive imagery, as in Aristotle’s description of the season’s first snow, which “comes whispering late one gray evening…. It seems to fall from nowhere, bits of pure colourlessness peeled off from the sky and drifting down, thicker now.”
Lyon’s singular gifts for description, character development, and plotting are on full display here, informing her unique and creative story. The novel is deep and rich in thought and accomplishment, yet it reads with the calming ease and influence of a cool summer breeze.