Winter by Ali Smith
If you are looking for an amusing, topical look at the world, this book delivers. Ali Smith’s Winter is the second part of her Seasonal Quartet, which began last year with Autumn, however it also stands alone. Winter evokes thoughts of snow, frost, darkness and Christmas with family and friends. The novel presents the thoughts and memories of four people over three days of Christmas. It is Christmas Eve in a large old house in Cornwall, and elderly, reclusive, businesswoman Sophia, estranged from her radical sister Iris, is expecting her son Arthur and his girlfriend Charlotte for what promises to be a difficult visit.
Sophia is eccentric, perhaps confused, but we recognise her problems. A trip to the bank on Christmas Eve to withdraw cash in readiness for her visitors ends in failure because her Individual Personal Advisor is more intent on selling her insurance than Personally Advising her; the cashiers have gone home and the cash machine is out of order. She muses on luxury flats no-one can afford and the closure of local shops, both of which touch on the world we recognise, but much of her narrative is less recognisably ‘actual’. She sees the disembodied head of a child which follows her everywhere. She reflects on the tensions within her family, particularly with the radical Iris, and recalls Christmases past. On repeat wakings during Christmas Eve, she, like Scrooge, hears midnight bells time and again. The reader is constantly confronted by the need to decide what is real and what is in her mind.
Arthur (Art) arrives, fearing the worst. He sees little of his mother and the girlfriend he was supposed to be bringing for her inspection has just walked out. His solution is to hire a replacement whom he picks at random from a bus shelter. Lux agrees to accompany him for three days for £1,000 masquerading as Charlotte, yet it is she who brings both wisdom and truth to this world of self-deception, lies and secrets. When Sophia collapses, it is Lux who organises Iris to come and help out, Iris the anti-capitalist rebel, with her memories of Greenham Common, Porton Down, pesticides and refugees. It is Lux who enables Sophia to start eating again and sows the seeds of a reconciliation between Art, Sophia and Iris.
Although Winter touches on a vast range of details (from over-familiar opticians to Donald Trump), Smith leaves us with a consoling sense of resolution as bitterness is assuaged. The events unroll with brilliant, inventive speed; Smith’s language is sharp and illuminating (not least her puns); she mixes protest songs with Christmas carols; and her allusions to Cymbeline and Scrooge, Giotto and Barbara Hepworth enrich our understanding of the world she presents. A good, witty and thought-provoking read
Reviewed by Jean Fox, Sherborne Literary Society
(Penguin, 2018), £8.99 paperback