Book Review: Winter by Ali Smith
Ali Smith followed up the first book in her Seasonal Quartet, Autumn, with Winter, a story which is not strictly a sequel (new characters, new plot, new setting), but definitely feels like a sibling of Autumn.
The book opens with Sophia Cleves talking to a child’s floating head on Christmas Eve. To be more precise, the book opens with a three page list of everything that has died: “God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead.”
The list goes on and on, and you don’t really know what this is or who is speaking (although we find out several pages afterwards), but it sets the tone for the themes of the book. For one thing, it’s winter, when life slows down and sometimes ends. For another, much like Autumn’s praise would suggest, this is to a large extent a Brexit novel, in the way it positions characters opposite each other, but very close to each other nonetheless. Getting back to Sophia (and the bizarre magical realism of the first chapter), she is one of the main characters, which ultimately include her sister Iris, her son Art, and Lux, a woman Art has hired to pretend to be his (ex)girlfriend Charlotte over Christmas. Christmas is the connecting thread that Ali Smith uses to jump in time, as she often does, to give us glimpses of Sophia’s and Iris’ childhood, as well as a few scenes from Art’s childhood. Lux doesn’t get the same treatment, but it becomes apparent that her role in the dynamics of the foursome is that of an insightful outsider looking in.
So, who are these people? You could say that Art is an aspiring writer who is trying to get his blog, where he meditates on nature (a mantra of the book being “art in nature”) while not showing any interest about anything else, particularly people. Sophia is a retired business woman, who’s a bit of an enigma for most of the book, but is often characterised by her annoyance at Iris (something that has been going on since they were children). Iris is a sort of professional protester/hippie, who was there at the beginning of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and is now helping refugees in Greece. The refugee crisis and particularly the general Brexit situation is always bursting at the seams of the background in every conversation they’re involved in.
Getting a new Ali Smith novel so soon after the last one is definitely a treat, but while I was reading Winter I kept wondering about how necessary it is. I loved Autumn almost as much as I loved How To Be Both (which still remains my favourite Ali Smith), but when I finished Winter, which I also loved, I wondered if it would’ve been better if she waited and fused these two books in one. They are very close in terms of what they emit, but it feels like Winter didn’t entirely earn its autonomy. At least not as an Ali Smith novel.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.