‘Winter’ by Ali Smith

2017, 322 p.

This is the second in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, a series of four books each set in the year in which they were written from 2016 onwards. It’s a strange and playful book, full of literary puns and allusions. It’s a bit show-offy, and for me there was no particular engagement with the characters, who seemed like mouthpieces for Smith’s own literary virtuosity and pawns in the author’s own political project, rather than flesh-and-blood characters in their own right.

The book starts with Sophia Cleve, a retired businesswoman, alone in her large 15-bedroom house with a disembodied head. This head bobs around in Sophia’s peripheral vision, moving in and out of rooms, and nestling closer to her. She is not frightened of the head- indeed, she becomes rather fond of it- but as a reader, you don’t know whether it is real or a hallucination. It is heading into Christmas, and Sophia’s son Art is coming to Cornwall to spend Christmas with her. A dilettante nature blogger, he has recently broken off with his girlfriend Charlotte, and so he pays a young girl, Lux, whom he met in a bus stop, to pretend to be his girlfriend for three days to avoid his mother’s questions. When he arrives there, his mother is acting particularly oddly. Lux encourages him to call his aunt, Iris, from whom Sophie has been estranged for several years, as the only other relative who could assist. Iris is a long-term social justice warrior, a veteran of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protests, who may have played a more important part in Art’s life than his mother admits, and more than what he remembers.

In many ways, the Big House setup is a bit of narrative cliche. The Christmas setting evokes Charlies Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, especially when Sophia thinks she hears the clock striking midnight twelve times. Time jumps back and forward to other Christmases, as in Dickens’ book, as we learn more about Sophia and Iris’ relationship, Art’s life and relationship, but little about Lux’s life.

At the same time, the book is threaded through with the current-day politics of 2017. Iris represents the progressive social justice old-left, having left behind the concerns about nuclear weapons to now protest the harsh immigration policies of the last few years- something which Lux, as an immigrant herself, understands well. Sophia spouts Daily Mail political opinions, while Art is cynical and rather cavalier about the nature and environment that he writes about in his blog. The book ends with the ascent of Trump – (and how delicious to read about it as Trump leaves office in the real world!) – and even though it is July, a chill falls over the book.

But most of all, the book is playing with literature. There is much mention of Shakespeare, especially his play Cymbeline (I have never heard of it- should I feel ashamed?). Art describes the play as “The one about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” I strongly suspect that this is the political trope that is running through the series – although I will have to wait to find out about that. There is lots of word-play, and little reflections about phrases and how they can be challenged – for example, what does ‘to-day’ mean? What is the verb ‘to day’? How do you ‘day’?

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Autumn, which felt more human, with less virtuosity. I felt as if I was a bit ‘slow’ when I was reading it, and a little anxious that allusions and witticisms were going over my head. I’m interested to keep reading the other books though- indeed, I have them piled up beside the bed – and so I’ll reserve judgement for now.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Eltham Bookshop. I bought it because I couldn’t borrow it.

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