This, the second volume in Ali Smith’s ‘four seasons’ quartet of novels, emerged in November 2017 just fifteen months after the publication of Autumn (the next – Spring – is due out next March, i.e. with a very similar time interval). The novels are complete entities in their own right and can be read as stand-alone novels, but there are clear links between them both in terms of characters and in terms of theme, adding depth to both (somewhat buried in the first case, unless you are really paying attention; but overt and strong in the second). This is a unified major work, produced not as one book but in instalments.
Here, we have a family coming together over Christmas in a delapidated house (itself standing as metaphor for the series’ theme of the post-Brexit state of the UK) located in Cornwall. Sophie and Iris are sisters, the first formerly a successful businesswoman now sonewhat embittered and showing the first signs of dementia, living alone in the house; the second, and older of the two, a veteran of the women’s camp and protest at Greenham Common, currently working among refugees in Greece, and previously part of a radical commune in that same house; Art is Sophie’s son, a fairly feckless 30-something copyright researcher (for the same conglomerate security company which also featured in ‘Autumn’) by day and nature blog writer by night, who arrives on Christmas Eve having fallen out with his girlfriend but who has managed to procure Lux, whom he had met at a bus stop on the winter solstice, in her place.
As always with Ali Smith novels, there is much going on here thematically and readers know what to expect – words tumble from the pages, sometimes apparently incoherently; the timeline jumps around continually and not always clearly; alternate readings of developments are placed in immediate juxtaposition; there are deep allusions to earlier events in how the characters interact; the writing style is witty, humorous, laconic and acerbic, and with knowingly planted literary references; and there are word plays gu leòr. The links to ‘Autumn’ are clear, both in terms of theme and in terms of a link to art (here the sculptor Barbara Hepworth; there the artist Pauline Boty). In short, Smith writes about art but also about life, and with a life-like liveliness and in full, glorious colour; and her characters are not only immensely believeable as a result but with near-independent lives of their own. Thematically, she is absolutely in charge and she handles her thematic material with supreme confidence and vitality.
My difficulty with the book is the rushed publication timescale. I understand the importance of speed in a quartet of this type, while Smith also believes that, when a novel comes, it needs to be trusted and allowed to breathe. The aim is to produce each of the novels just prior to the the season of the title but the danger is that hasty rush to publication imposed by a forced deadline can lead to errors, dropped threads, awkward interferences in the lives of the characters and a potential loss of control over some of the plot material. In a work in which art is a major theme, the existence of forced, and somewhat arbitrary, deadlines comes as something of a surprise.
Iris, for example, has no other family that we know of than Sophie – with whom she has not spoken in nearly thirty years, by the way – but finds herself back in the UK for Christmas and located somewhere close by. Nevertheless, she is able to respond to Art’s early Christmas morning call for help to come over to the house and, of course, she has enough food for all. Lux is indeed the key character, shedding light on all despite her youth and stemming from a complex personal history and current circumances (she is a Croatian refugee from a family which had fled to Canada but who had recently been studying in the UK, the country of Shakespeare), but the choice of name is shockingly, and unnecessarily, mallet-like. (Neither, despite intensely reading a ‘Chicken Cottage’ menu when Art first meets her, does she actually work for Chicken Cottage, though this might reflect a deliberate concealment.) Art’s blog writing is truly awful – that’s part of the point, but it is indeed terribly cliched and unreadably written; you’ll have to trust me on this one, but it’s not actually possible to build a blog audience (or a twitter following) when you have absolutely no feel for what you are writing about. Both Sophie and Art have some kind of unexplained visual disturbance which has a physical manifestation but which appears to come to naught. Despite the (contemporary) action taking place over just one week at the end of 2016, the end of the book extends forward well beyond winter, and into spring and summer 2017 with little apparent purpose other than to shoehorn-in references to events in the UK (and in the US) within the perspective of the series’ desire to echo current events. I’m entirely comfortable with this as a device – but when the novel’s message is already entirely clear, perhaps the proper homes for such observations is a blog post. Or, indeed, future work within the series.
All these are problems symptomatic of a rushed publication timescale in which there is little time to pick up non-sequiturs (this is not a plea that all loose ends must tie up; just one for threads not to be introduced only to be simply dropped) but also, more crucially, mistakes in the text and weak, or poor, editorial choices. These undermine the work which would have therefore benefited from a more extended review of the content, and one hopes that ‘Spring’ doesn’t suffer the same. It may well be, however, that a rushed timetable means we have, if not to overlook the flaws, then at least to forgive them.
Despite the flaws, the themes constitute ‘Winter’ as a magnificent thing. Seasonally: that winter, when everything appears to be dead, is more a time when things are stilled, gathering strength for the renewal of spring; that jaded palettes and people can be restored even when things seem hopeless; and that the winter solstice, while marking the depth of winter, is also the turning point – that, from here, light once again grows in strength; that things do indeed ‘get better’. Politically: that after the:
… poison, mess [and the] bitterness… the balance [does] come back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated
– that there is both reckoning and rectification. And that the greatest truths about ourselves are often told by those who are ‘outsiders’, people with whom we appear on the face of it to have little in common and whose lives and experiences are not our own. At a time when we as a people are turning inwards, and our backs on our fellow human beings, when available technology ought to be making us more open to new messages and to new people with different characteristics and different perspectives, that is a message of which we urgently need to be reminded, at Christmas and in the depths of winter not least of all – but not only then.