Ali Smith, 2017
It’s always such a wonderful moment when one reads the exact right book at the exact right time. For me, Winter was such a book, read in the last days of last year.
The first book I read in 2018 was Autumn, and the last book I read in 2018 was Winter. These are the first two in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet (Spring and Summer are yet to be published). I didn’t give a star rating at all to Autumn – I was confused by it, having enjoyed some aspects and been frustrated by others, feeling as though I didn’t quite get it.
What a difference a year makes! I absolutely loved Winter. I could write a long list of adjectives to describe it – wonderful, peaceful, exciting, truthful, comforting, far-reaching, brave – but adjectives don’t really say much on their own. But suffice to say, I couldn’t get enough of this book. I read it every moment I could, just relishing every page. It infected my thoughts, even my dreams at night. I don’t know if I’ll do a very good job of articulating why I loved it in this review; all I know is that I loved every moment spent reading it.
If you don’t know the premise of Smith’s seasonal quartet, they are all set in contemporary Britain – and I mean seriously contemporary. Autumn was hailed as ‘the first post-Brexit novel’, published mere months after the referendum result (although apparently Smith had been musing over some of the ideas for the quartet for twenty years). The stories of the characters’ lives and relationships are set against the political and social backdrop of today. Winter features nuclear war protest, anti-immigrant sentiment, Trump’s speeches, a twitter storm, the Grenfell fire, Nicholas Soames ‘woofing’ at a female MP, the Women’s Marches and Boris Johnson.
He looks around him at all the people in the library. I mean, look. See that. Not one other person in this room knows or cares about the things that are happening online in his name and under his header photo. When you look at it like that it’s pretty much like it isn’t really happening.
Except it is.
So which is the real thing? Is this library not the world? Is that the world, the one on the screen, and this, this sitting here bodily with all these other people round him, isn’t?
At the heart of this novel, however, is an affectionate family story. The storytelling is very much non-linear, and I loved the skipping back and forward in time, into different characters’ memories. There are two sisters, Iris and Sophia. Iris is the rebellious older sister, Sophia the well-behaved younger. We also get to know their parents a little.
My own father inherited an abiding hatred of people from particular other countries, from his time in the war.
Which war is that? Charlotte Bain said.
Don’t be obtuse, Sophia said. The war. The Second World War.
After becoming estranged from her family, Iris begins a life of never-ending political protest, charity work and hippy-style living in abandoned buildings. Sophia later becomes a successful businesswoman, but when we know her (in the ‘present day’) she is a rather grumpy, solitary, retired woman, living alone in a huge old house in Cornwall. Over the course of the novel, we see plenty of scenes from throughout both of their lives, and I shan’t give too much away, but Smith weaves an intricate tapestry of life.
This was one of my favourite aspects of the book: the subtlety, and lack of bias, in what is inherently a ‘political’ novel, in that it mentions lots of political activity. The sisters, with opposing political views and outlooks on life, are both portrayed with sympathy and love. Neither is antagonised, though the flaws of each are gently brought to light. We grow to care about them both. In an interview with Foyles, Smith echoes a line from the closing pages of her own book: ‘the human will always surface’ / ‘As soon as the human being enters the equation instead of the dividing factors between human beings, things become, well, more human.’
Are you getting at me for not having a bed in here? Sophia said.
That’s right, Iris said, and that’s why I’m here. The only reason. To get at you. I left everything behind, all my work, any chance of a Christmas rest, and drove all the way last night and did everything I did today including all the dishes after the lunch I made. All to get at you.
We also have Sophia’s son, Arthur (Art) – who has a blog called Art in Nature and whose name is the basis for much punning and wordplay – his girlfriend, Charlotte, who he breaks up with over political disagreements, and a stranger, a Croatian-Canadian girl, Lux, who he asks to pretend to be his girlfriend when he goes to visit his mother for Christmas. Finding Sophia in an unstable state, Lux decides to invite estranged sister Iris too. And thus, the stage is set. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day form the centre of this novel.
The scenario – four very different characters, all trapped in a web of interlocking and complex relationships, some of whom have quarrels with each other, together for Christmas in a lonely country house – is delightfully familiar. And yet, Smith made it her own. There is nothing sentimental, stale or tacky about this Christmas special.
That red postbox on the front of the Radio Times: why does it mean so much and at the same time so little? She wants it to mean again like meaning used to mean. And why is this a day that had a meaning before but even while it carries on having that meaning, meaning so much to so many people, why can’t it have that meaning any more here and now for her?
Something else that must be mentioned is Smith’s exquisite writing and use of language. This is best described using examples:
This brush-off had also quite recently happened to Sophia, though she was, she believed, still well known, or at least, well, known, in the local bank as a once-stellar international businesswoman who’d come down here to retire.
How can something so small be so clever? ‘Well known’ versus ‘well, known’. The comma changes everything, a hesitation changing a confident assertion of status to a betrayal of insecurity. Or this:
His aunt [was] the image of his mother but his mother magnified, as if fulfilled. No, filled full.
The sort of quote that just itches to be examined in a paragraph in an essay. Is ‘fulfilled’ the same as ‘filled full’? Or this:
But someone here is clever enough at least to have made its generator work, so there’s electricity, for which relief much thanks (Hamlet), because it’s bitter cold and Sophia is feeling pretty sick at heart.
The strength of the novel – its appeal, to me – is the balance of its three central features: political context, a story about family relationships, and playful, witty, eye-opening use of language. It’s all very well being clever with words and weaving in current events, but the strong narrative driving forward was what hooked me in and made me care. Smith’s realistic, likeable characters gained my sympathy and kept me reading.
Is this like when we were talking about those people who drowned trying to cross the sea running away from war, and you said we didn’t need to feel responsible because it had been their choice to run away from their houses being burned down and bombed and then their choice again to get into a boat that capsized? she said.
This is the kind of thing she’s been saying.
There are so many more aspects to this book that I’m not really clever enough to talk about: the surrealist moments, the discussion of Barbara Hepworth, mingled with the recurring motif of stones, allusions to Dickens, the featuring of Cymbeline – which Lux says was the reason she wanted to come to the UK, a country which produced a playwright who could take a big tangled mess and unravel everything and restore the balance.
Restoring the balance is something that Smith, as well as Shakespeare, seems able to do. In a goodreads review, William (who rated Winter 3 stars) says: ‘I don’t want my novels filled with current events. I read more than ever now for a novel’s ability to create an alternative world. I don’t read fantasy, but I can see why readers are drawn to fantasy now. I understand the need for escapism and, thus, relief… the novel reimmerses us in the topicality we thought we’d put aside. In this age of news hitting you 24/7 from dozens of content sources, is this what we really want—the news invading our novels too?’
I see his point. I certainly wouldn’t want the news invading every book I read. But there’s something about the way Smith handles things in Winter that is comforting. Many of the reviews I’ve read note a quiet optimism in the final pages of the book, which is what makes it so compelling. In the podcast Books on the Go, Anna Baillie-Karas says, ‘I just loved being in Ali Smith’s company… She really illuminates the modern world and makes you see things in a new light… somehow you feel, because Ali Smith has noticed it, you’re not alone – and something you might have found absurd, she has noticed that and called it out.’
Not so long ago it was only the mentally deranged, the unworldly pedants, the imperialists and the naivest of schoolchildren who believed that encyclopaediae gave you any equivalence for the actual world, or any real understanding of it. And door-to-door salesmen sold them, and they were never to be trusted. But now the world trusts search engines without a thought. The canniest door-to-door salesmen ever invented. Never mind foot in the door. Already right in the heart of the home.
But, Baillie-Karas continues, as well as pointing out many problems in the world today with ‘a gentle touch’, by describing the beauty that art and nature can achieve Smith’s novel is ‘redemptive, and she finds the redemption in people’s beauty and ability to create, and also in nature.’
In her interview with Foyles, Smith links this optimism with the natural movement of the seasons which form the background arc to her quartet. ‘I realised, while I was writing this book, and it’s something I’d never properly registered before though it’s as obvious as anything, that winter is predicated as much on the coming back of the light as the waning of it.’
I think Anna Baillie-Karas articulated it brilliantly. Yes, it seems counter-productive to rob oneself of the last vestige of escapism, literature, when the modern world is, perhaps, so painful. But one of my favourite quotes about reading is that ‘we read to know we are not alone’. Seeing something written down in Smith’s wonderfully factual (and therefore illuminating) prose is having it noticed, having it cared about, even a little bit.
Sophia had been feeling nothing for some time now. Refugees in the sea. Children in ambulances. Blood-soaked men running to hospitals or away from burning hospitals carrying blood-covered children. Dust-covered dead people by the sides of roads. Atrocities. People beaten up and tortured in cells.
I can’t recommend this book enough: at once literary and down to earth, self-aware and brave, idiosyncratic, such a joy to read. I absolutely can’t wait for the publication of Spring (coming in March 2019), and to reread Autumn and Winter beforehand. I have a feeling that Autumn will be freshly illuminated for me – and I’m already itching to dive back into Winter again!