And so Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet comes full circle with Summer. What a journey these four books have been – experimental fiction at its best written in the moment at a time of political and social upheaval. Challenging, sometimes grating, often uplifting, so many of the loose threads left dangling in the first three books are reconnected in this finale.
Ali Smith is a challenging author to read. You get comfortable with one story and a couple of characters who she then abandons to tell you about someone else who seems completely disconnected. At times there are passages which seem to belong to no character, where the authorial voice shows through. It can feel as if the manuscripts for two or three novels have been thrown in the air and landed randomly on your Kindle. But then, as you come close to the end of this fourth book, all the disparate stories start to connect. Read Summer, the last in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, when your brain is in full gear otherwise you will miss so much.
The story starts in Brighton with Sacha and Robert Greenlaw, teenage siblings, precocious, curious, competitive, committed and awkward. Following a trick Robert plays on his sister, two strangers visit the home where they live with their mum Grace. The strangers, Charlotte and Arthur, are the first characters from previous books to reappear. And so begins a journey to Norfolk, inspired by Einstein, motivated by a promise, towards answers, towards mystery, no one seems to really know.
Smith says summer is ‘heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without darkness.’ Smith’s tales always feature darkness and here it is the wartime stories of Daniel Gluck and his father interned on the Isle of Man and of Daniel’s sister in France. How, I wondered as I read, will Smith connect the Greenlaws, Charlotte, Arthur and the Glucks? That is what kept me reading, to discover the meaning of summer in this story and to these particular characters. Smith says ‘summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something.’ There is so much depth in her exploration of theme – paralleling The Winter’s Tale, for example, and her own summer tale via the remembered summer of Grace when a young Shakespearean actress – more than I can explain here. You have to read it for yourself.
I do wish for old-fashioned punctuation, speech marks and clearly delineated changes of voice, the lack of which interrupts the flow of my reading and takes me away from the story – surely that can’t be the conscious objective of any author.
I will re-read this quartet back-to-back, without pause, hoping to gain more understanding and nuance. Individually, the novels are challenging and at times mystifying. Collectively, they become something else entirely. I suspect in years to come I will see a different interpretation.
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