Winter by Ali Smith is second in her Seasonal Quartet but unconnected to its predecessor Autumn in terms of character and location. Like all Smith’s novels, it pays to read with patience. The story is at times choppy and sections seem unrelated; but have faith, it will make sense, connections will link up, characters will coincide and small details laid down early will connect to something much later. And simmering beneath the words is Smith’s anger at our unjust messed-up modern world where we don’t notice what’s going on around us and don’t seem to care. So much fiction today looks back at our history, Smith’s Seasonal Quartet is so modern if feels as if she is writing a page ahead of the one I am reading.
First we meet two sisters, Sophia and Iris who are as unalike as sisters can be. Art, Sophia’s son, has had his Twitter identity stolen by his angry girlfriend. Charlotte is posting incorrect tweets about Art’s ‘Art in Nature’ blog and these untruths are now trending. Art, who has committed to taking Charlotte to his mother’s house in Cornwall for Christmas, instead invites a girl he sees sitting at a bus stop. Lux, who starts off pretending to be Charlotte but then admits the deception to Sophia, is a catalyst in the wintry household. It is Lux who encourages Sophia to eat, Lux who discovers an outbuilding full of old stock from Sophia’s retail business, Lux who insists Art call his Aunt Iris. And so these four mis-matched, total and almost strangers, spend Christmas together.
As in Autumn there are some passages which made me laugh out loud. This time it was Sophia’s eye test at the optician after having seen a disembodied head floating in her peripheral vision; and the incident with her Individual Personal Advisor at the bank who was unable to give her advice. There is the grumpiness of growing old, observing a youth obsessed by irrelevances while forgetting the basic things that matter, and things that don’t work. There is the dislike of big business selling us stuff we don’t need in the guise that it’s essential, un-missable, while re-making new stuff so it looks like more valuable old stuff. “But now the world trusts a search engines without a thought. The canniest door-to-door salesman ever invented. Never mind foot in the door. Already right at the heart of the house.” The theme of winter runs throughout; the death of autumn, the decay that comes from lack of care and effort, the decline of relationships, the winter of ageing, nuclear threat and political division.
If you like a linear story and loose ends tied, then perhaps Ali Smith is not for you. If you are prepared to relax into a story, trust the author and wait to see what happens, then try her. She is experimental, quirky, not afraid to try something different.
‘Winter’ by Ali Smith, #2 Seasonal Quartet [UK: Hamish Hamilton]
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