Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer's leaves? Dead litter. The world shrinks; the sap sinks. But winter makes things visible. And if there's ice, there'll be fire. In Ali Smith's Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonalcycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith's shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens- art, love, laughter. It's the season that teaches us survival. Here comes Winter.
Okay, trying to describe the plot of this novel is nearly impossible and certainly misleading. It's not a plot-driven tale although the story does unfold with compelling forward momentum. But Ali Smith's brilliance is in her surreal imagery, her mind-bending explorations of language's multidimensionality, and her generous development of characters. I love her work and I loved this novel. Lux is a particularly delightful character, serving (I believe) as the author's alter-ego, questioning the other characters' assumptions and perceptions as only an omniscient narrator can usually do.
Here's where she loses the half-star: I had to read the last page several times and I just wasn't sure I got it. Maybe it's just me but the last paragraph was just too jarringly concrete to wrap up an otherwise perfectly metaphorical and metaphysical novel.
Winter is both a family drama and a commentary on the changing climate--both the physical climate and the sociopolitical one. The family: three estranged people and a lovable impostor. The commentary: our world and what it is doing to humanity. One of Smith's targets is technology and the way it removes us from real relationships, responsibility, and personal authenticity. The egotism and isolation it creates feeds into the populist movements that brought us Brexit and Donald Trump, both of which come under Smith's verbal attack. There's a moment when Art, one of the main characters, reads about a crowdfunding effort to raise money to buy a boat that will repel Italian boats trying to rescue refugees. It's hard not to see in that the support in some American quarters for building a wall on the Mexican border and deporting Dreamers to "home countries" that have never in memory been their homes. And it's no surprise that one main character, Arthur, writes a successful blog, Art in Nature--even though he is never out in nature and is rarely artful; it's all just BS for attention and self-gratification.
The family story: It's almost Christmas, and Art and his fiancée Charlotte committed to spend the holiday with his mother, Sophie, in Cornwall. But there's a problem: Charlotte, an environmental activist, has called out Art for his lack of any real commitment to pro-nature causes. (There's symbolism in the fact that she destroys his laptop on her way out.) But does Art call Sophie and explain the breakup? Of course not. Instead, he hires a young Croatian girl who looks like she could use some cash to pretend to be Charlotte. Lux turns out to be the quiet hero of the novel.
Sophie and Art don't get along. Sophie, a once-successful businesswoman, doesn't get along with her aging hippie sister, Iris, who is always off somewhere saving the world. And lately, Sophie has been seeing things . . . namely, the floating head of a young child. It's Lux who tells Art that he must call Iris and tell her to come at once, despite the sisters' animosity.
Enough said about the plot. The novel moves back and forth among the family members and back and forth in time through their memories, yet it always comes back to the present day, asking, How did we get to this place? Full of Smith's usual wordplay, Winter gives us bittersweet of the art that once was and the nature that we're losing, yet somehow we're left not so much with a sense of doom as a ray of hope. I can't describe it any better than that without giving away far too much and making it sound like something it isn't. Read it. Find out for yourself. When you're done, you'll want to read it again.
While there’s considerable comedic potential in this setup, Smith doesn’t go there. Just as winter exposes a landscape, Smith exposes the tensions between family members, and the secrets they’ve kept over the years. Charlotte’s stand-in, Lux, is a sympathetic outsider who uses her role for good while managing her own secrets and needs. Smith periodically diverts the reader’s attention to political issues, past and present, and to be honest I’m still thinking about how these segments fit into the narrative. Despite that bit of confusion, this book was compelling, moving, and well crafted.
Sophia is a fairly prosperous retired businesswoman, living in a big old house in Cornwall. Her son, Art, is coming to stay for Christmas with his girlfriend Charlotte (only he's just had a fight with her, and brings a Charlotte-stand-in instead...). And when Sophia gets up in the night of Christmas Eve, she discovers that Art has also smuggled in his aunt, Sophia's older sister Iris, a Greenham Common veteran and all-purpose peacenik, who definitely wasn't invited.
This is not a ghost story, Smith tells us, but all the same there are plenty of echoes of A Christmas Carol going on, and both Sophia and Art get their share of quasi-supernatural experiences in the course of the story. Shakespeare's Cymbeline is another strong intertextual presence, helped along by not-Charlotte, who turns out to be a Croatian Shakespeare scholar set adrift by the "Brexit" fiasco. I was expecting there to be a lot about Barbara Hepworth (we get a reproduction of one of her works on the inside back cover), and she does come into the story at a couple of crucial points, but she actually has rather less impact on the text than you would expect from one of Smith's "artists in residence".
Fun, but with plenty of well-observed criticism of the state of the world and the mess we're making of it, Britain in particular. And an overdue reminder of what we all owe to the Greenham Common women, and what they went through.
It's not a sequel in terms of the story and characters, but it is in terms of the theme of the political and societal state of affairs underpinning Brexit - especially in relation to the power of protest, immigration and simply living in a nation where people are so adrift from each other because of what they believe (or what they think they believe).
Smith is so good at making you think, but without allowing you to realise that that's what she's doing. As much as I'm enjoying this quartet so far, I hope that real events take a turn for the better in time for the brighter days of Spring and Summer.
I won't even attempt to summarize the plot, other than to say it's centered around a complicated family dynamic between two sisters, the son that both of them love, and his pretend girlfriend. Along the way, Smith sprinkles the novel with ruminations on the current global political climate (particularly but not exclusively Brexit), old-time radio and television comedians, artists, and peace activists. Oh, and there's a disembodied head floating around. The political commentary on xenophobia and racism is still trenchant but it didn't quite feel as fresh as it did in [Autumn]. I fear that's because as time goes on we (or perhaps just I) am becoming numb to the daily insults to human dignity that continue to be perpetrated by people who seem proud of their inhumanity.
I'm not sure what Smith has in store for us when Spring rolls around, but I have a feeling I will once again be left struggling to explain what, or how, or why.
Smith's creative use of language, allusion, and imagery invigorate my reading experience. However, I have mixed feelings about the social and political commentary in this novel. Her commentary on immigration and post-Brexit Britain works because Charlotte/Lux is a fully rounded and sympathetic character. On the other hand, her more direct comments on Trump and his policies may bring instant buzz among readers who share her antipathy at the expense of enduring recognition that will outlast this moment in history.
Awaiting Spring and Summer
Ali Smith continues her seasonal series here with the deftness of wordplay that can only be expected by now. Puns, twists, doubled meanings, even enlivened clichés play a part. There are outside viewpoints, both from characters when they were younger and from a current outsider (Lux). There is a coating of love, again not surprising for Smith. And then there are the heavy hitters, the clunky, clanky, current issue of what it means to be an outsider and of those who try to make an outsider of so many of us. Typically delightful and conspicuously serious.
Just what you hope for from the next Ali Smith novel.
12/2/18: I feel a bit like I should apologize for only rating this three stars when it's clearly so very competently written (the bit where Smith mimics a poorly written blog post by one of the main characters is proof enough of that, it's like watching a great actor pretend to be a bad actor and they pull it off so well you cringe at the bad acting), but! Three stars is still a good rating! It means I solidly enjoyed it, and there were a few moments I found particularly stunning that in the end just didn't happen to elevate the entire thing to the next level for me. However, I can easily see how someone could connect with this much more viscerally for the full five-star reading experience, so I'd still recommend it to anyone who would enjoy whip smart literary fiction with themes of family and (very, very contemporary) politics by an author who clearly knows her shit.
The story isn't linear, but it is the relationships, not the chronology of events, that really matter here. There are several actual or stylistic references to other works -- not sure I got them all -- but the idea of Christmases past, present and future figure. There are also references to contemporary issues (Trump and Brexit) without a lot of background, so I'm not sure this novel will stand the test of time.
Hard book to review. The most positive thing I can say is that after reading it, I've bought the earlier novel in this quartet, Autumn, which I'll be reading soon.