Book Review – The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

I’m a few years behind on this train but let me be the most recent person to tell you this: The Golden Mean (Random House Canada, 2009) by Annabel Lyon is a great book.

Lyon brings an extraordinary amount of humanity and relevance to the historical story of Aristotle in Macedon. While the action of the novel takes place before Christ walked the Earth, the characters, their thoughts, and their personalities, seem entirely current and human.

We join Aristotle as he arrives in Macedon for a short stay before he continues on to Athens. Instead, his old friend the king, requests that Aristotle stay to tutor his young son. A king like Philip is a difficult man to refuse and so Aristotle remains in the city of Pella for years, tutoring the young man we know today as Alexander the Great.

The beauty of this novel is that Lyon takes larger-than-life historical figures like Aristotle and Alexander and makes them human. No matter how much or little you know about these men, they are familiar names in the English lexicon and each of us has preconceived notions about them. Lyon strips that down to the story of a teacher and a student.

At the same time, in Aristotle, she creates a character who is more than a teacher or a philosopher. We get to know Aristotle as a son, a brother, a husband, and a father. We see him as a friend to Philip, as a scholar who doesn’t quite fit in a warrior culture. As a book lover in a time when books were truly invaluable.

In fact, in one scene where Aristotle expresses his concern over lending out books, I had to remind myself how rare a bound book would have been in that time. The book felt so current and the characters so similar to people I know, that it was easy to forget the ancient setting.

Alexander, too, gets the human treatment. He isn’t Alexander the Great here. He’s a teenage boy who is gifted in some ways but not all and who may be king one day. If all goes well for him. We learn to care for him as Aristotle cares for him, but Lyon does well at keeping Alexander’s fate always in the reader’s mind. The life of a scholar will not be Alexander’s and so as we watch him learn, we’re reminded that this is a brief interlude in his brief life.

It’s a pleasure to read that interlude captured on paper by a talented writer.

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