Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

When I bought The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon, I thought that it was a safe bet that it would be a good read.  The reviews were all positive and it had been a finalist for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Awards, so all signs pointed in the right direction.  

The subject matter is very tricky and the only reason that the book has been so well received is that the writing is far superior to the normal historical fiction fare.  It's story takes place in ancient Macedonia through the eyes of the philosopher Aristotle who has been commissioned to tutor the young Alexander the Great.  Even at a young age, Alexander realizes his role as a future king and his pride often gets in the way of his studies.  He is set apart from is friends both as a prince and an ambitious thinker.  Aristotle can relate to his young student, his mind often caused rifts between him and his family and peers.  Though his father was a well-respected doctor who cured strangers, his son remained a mystery to him, and as a result, Aristotle is sent off to Athens to study with Plato.  

His troubled youth is mirrored in the life of his student, with Alexander having similar issues.  Aristotle often touches upon he struggles with depression, though because he dwells in ancient Macedonia, he doesn't articulate his problems in the same manner that we do in modern society.  Instead he describes his condition with natural metaphors and his father's medical terms.  He talks about an excess of "black bile" which afflicts both himself and Alexander, and this causes extremes in personality.  In Alexander, this rears its ugly head after he is tested in battle.  To my modern mind his condition sounds very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by his first experience on the battlefield.  In order to inform Aristotle about what is going on with Alexander, the general Antipater, tries to describe something akin to shell shock.    

The book is named after a term that Aristotle coined for a balanced mind.  He taught Alexander to strive for the midpoint between two extremes and the irony is that neither achieves this "golden mean" for themselves.  Aristotle vacillates between manic periods of productivity and moments of deep depression and Alexander doesn't fare any better. Their struggles make for an interesting comparison and challenges what we think about the roles of the thinker and the soldier.  There are similar pressures to perform and their achievements as leaders should not be diminished due to their acknowledged frailties.  If it is true that Alexander suffered from battle-related anxiety, then his conquests are all the more impressive.

In addition to the insight that Lyon provides into the life of these two towering figures of ancient times, this is just a well-written book.  Sometimes historical fiction has a tendency to sensationalize the lives of the characters in order to titillate the audience, but Lyon does no such thing.  Instead she relies on good writing technique and a memorable narrative voice in Aristotle.  This book could have easily gone in the other direction, but I'm glad that Lyon charted her own course.