When we at Earlyworks Press were reading the competition shortlist for the stories that would become our 2015/2016 anthology, The Ball of the Future, one story gave the judges pause for thought. We allow for quite long stories – up to 8000 words, in the Earlyworks Press comps, because we don’t like the idea of the whole world being made up of bite-sized quickies – but when a story weighs in close to that limit, we always look suspiciously for rambling, or poor editing. We found no such with ‘Angela’ by Ann Butler Rowlands. Thoughtful and well crafted, the exactly 8000-word story followed Angela through a lifetime of visits to a Greek island, studying all the flips and troughs of her career and her love-life along the way. It left the reader feeling as though they’d experienced a whole novel – and it stayed in the mind, causing thoughtful pauses – in a good way – for weeks afterwards.
Nevertheless, when I saw that Butler Rowlands had produced a whole book of English-people-on-Greek-island stories, it gave me pause. Could she sustain that style and quality through a whole book? – But she has. It isn’t just that Butler Rowlands makes such a fantastic job of using the light of Greek sun and sea to illuminate a wide range of stories – in some cases it is not the glorious light that illuminates, it is “the silence of the island at night” that “settles on us all…as if it came from the sea.” Nor is it just the variety of tones and moods or the skillful variety of narrative voices that make it special – from the jaded, retired academic to the adopted child feeling, but not understanding, her unremembered early years, from the cultured woman recovering from her husband’s last illness to a gossipy holiday maker thinking herself very superior in a hotel “quiet with self-contained Europeans who don’t need any more friends.”
The book is made special by a sad but intriguing theme: “What happens when the European middle classes come out to play on an upwardly mobile Greek island?” The totality of this set of absorbing and self-contained stories is the biography of an island with a bad attack of mixed humans. One of my favourites is the story of Sevasti, who was born into a pre-tourist era Greek community and “Galia” (the locals can’t pronounce “Gloria”) who makes a career of being, first the glamorous blonde on someone’s yacht and eventually a world famous model. It is questionable how much the two women really understand each other’s lives, as Sevasti finds her way to an education, a business and an accommodation with the modern world unfurling around her whilst Galia travels in the opposite direction, eventually consumed by the impossible demands professional glamour make on a woman. But despite the little they have in common, the empathy between them, and Sevasti’s quiet acknowledgement of Galia’s tragedy within the glamour, give the story its truly stunning strength.
Each of the stories is headed by snippets of Butler Rowlands’ own translations of C P Cavafy’s poems, and my favourite sits between Galia’s story and that of the adopted child – perfectly, I think, because it speaks to both of them:
I shall make myself a fabulous caparison…
…no-one will know
…where I am wounded…
Heaven. The title of the book is Heaven – both in the slightly silly way one says ‘Heaven’ when greeting a holiday vista and in the awestruck way that one responds to the numinous. Just think about the endless variety of reasons people with a bit of money to hand might dash off and bury themselves in a Greek idyll, and you’ll understand why these stories are a natural mix of the funny, the dangerous, the farcical and the deeply thought-provoking. If you enjoy exploring the spectrum of human experience, you’ll love Heaven by Ann Butler Rowlands.