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book review

Annabel Lyon at the Giller Prize gala in Toronto, November 10, 2009.CP

Toward the end of his life, Aristotle was living in Athens with a slave woman and had a young son whose name, Nicomachos, is preserved in the Nicomachean Ethics, one of the central works of philosophy for the past 2,000 years. A few years earlier, when his wife was alive, the couple had a daughter, Pythias, whom history has not treated so generously. Novelist Annabel Lyon has taken the opportunity of righting this wrong.

In Aristotle's time and place, previously described by Lyon in her bestseller The Golden Mean, gender equality was not a big philosophical issue. It was Pythias's father who was famed by biographers for the shape of his legs, his bright clothes and fancy jewellery – as well, of course, as for his matchless mind. In the vast library of Aristotle's lecture notes on every subject from morality to music there is nothing to mark the life of Lyon's heroine. But equally and conveniently, there are few facts to get in the way of the good story that she tells.

The Sweet Girl, like its predecessor, is set in the last half of the fourth century BC, when Athens has lost its greatness and is ruled by Macedonians from the north. Aristotle's family is part of the new ruling class, feared and privileged while Alexander the Great is successfully pursuing global domination, unpopular and exiled when he dies. Pythias experiences both the good times and the bad in an odyssey of feminine self-discovery that is designed to show her as a thoroughly modern woman too.

Aristotle's family business is medicine, a profession that was then hereditary. We first meet Pythias as she neatly dissects a lamb for the gods. The next outpouring on the page is her own first menstrual blood. The connection between sacrifice and sexual maturity was close in the thought of that time – and Lyon quietly, and throughout the book, makes the link without overburdening her readers with dissertation.

There is a neat passage where Pythias's simpler girlfriend describes to her the popular superstition of a woman's "wandering womb" – a great excuse that "gets you out of all kinds of things … whatever you like really … it's your womb migrating through your body searching for moisture." Aristotle's daughter, a new materialist in mind, raises her eyebrows at the idea that a part of her body moves from place to place for a drink.

As well as little Nicomachus, a child expert in the facts of life, the family includes a distant older cousin, Myrmex, whose education, especially in morals, is glamorously stunted in Pythias's eyes. Amid a growing sexual tension, the pair discuss the thesis that there is really no difference between women and plants. She wants to protect him by her studies, but when the Athenians riot against their Macedonian oppressors, it is Myrmex who notes the latest signs of flowing blood and grabs the family money for his escape.

Lyon's Aristotle dies soon afterward from the effects an unsuccessful attempt to swim a tidal strait flowing in both directions at once, a fascinating scientific curiosity. The philosopher's will, passed on to us by Diogenes Laertius 600 years later, is the novelist's main source for what was supposed to happen to Pythias next, an arranged marriage to a cousin who was away on campaign at the time. This leaves our fictional Pythias prey to a range of protectors and seducers of both sexes.

She fends for herself as best she can. She is the proud possessor of her father's vaginal dilator, and knows a little midwifery. She helps out in a brothel where dead births are preferred, usually buried alongside a puppy for company. She passes a perfunctory virginity check for the priesthood ("perhaps in the old days it mattered more") and watches while her colleagues share out among themselves the cash and kind contributions from the faithful. She joins a free-love commune and watches "the rhubarby business" as her new friends practise "the lioness on a cheese-grater" and "visiting the sausage-seller." She prefers waxing to plucking.

The arranged marriage is blighted by her thoughts of her husband burning Indian villages and raping peasant girls. But she frees her slaves and happily decides to become a biology teacher. Her father – in fiction, at least – would have been proud of her.

Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement and chairman of judges for the Man Booker Prize for fiction (2012). He has written extensively on Greek and Roman literature, and is president of the Classical Association.