Winter is Ali Smith at her very best.  Expect to see this novel deservedly feature on awards lists next year.

opening remarks

I liked but didn’t love Autumn.

While the main thread involving a 100-year-old songwriter and a teenager with an interest in culture and art (it’s not skeevy, I promise) is beautifully depicted, when the novel treads into the territory of Brexit and the subsequent rise in racial hatred it all gets a bit ranty and Sunday supplement.  Not to say that furious passion isn’t a good thing, but it’s ill-fitting in a story that also explores the influence and genius of Pauline Boty a major player in the Pop Art scene.  Still, I knew Smith was writing a quartet and I can’t pretend that I haven’t been excited to read Winter the second of the four books.  Because even when it’s a little messy or on the nose, it’s still Ali Smith.  And fuck me if she isn’t a fantastic writer.

knee-jerk observations

This is the opening of the novel. Talk about setting a tone:

Ali Smith does this brilliant thing – which I can’t remember seeing before – where we get one side of a conversation and then in the next scene it switches to the other side of the exchange.  Which I grant doesn’t sound that innovative or original, but in the hands of Smith it just is, OK!  Also one of the characters keeps seeing a floating, severed head so there’s that as well.

The woman who is stalked by the floating head is Sophia Cleves.  At one point she’s able to shoo the head out into the backyard only to have it come back to the house tap, tap, tapping on the window.

Insistent, stubborn heads aside, Winter is a Christmas story – with Dickensian overtones – where Sophia’s son Art (short for Arthur) comes to stay for the holiday bringing along a woman named Lux who is masquerading as Art’s girlfriend (now ex) Charlotte.  And if I’m reading things correctly it would also appear that Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister may be paying them all a visit [she most certainly does].

As with Autumn, we get these interludes where Ali Smith comments on the current moment.  It’s as if she’s put down her writer’s pen to bash out a blog post, except with far more art and erudition than 99% of us could muster.  Anyway in the ‘blog post’ I’m reading now she comments on that time that Nicholas Soames barked at fellow MP, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. This happened in January 2017 in amongst Trump’s travel bans and Islamophobia.  I completely missed that this was a thing, in fact, I thought Smith had made it up.  But no, a grown arse man barked like a dog at a woman in the House of Commons because she had the temerity to ask a question about the Muslim ban.  Smith’s matter of fact tone lets the moment speak for itself:

A key theme of the novel is the authenticity of memory.  Sophia, who is clearly not well, and not just because she can see a floating head and regularly hears the church bells ring for midnight, spends a good deal of the novel living in the past.  There’s also this recurring request – whether it’s a young Art asking his mother or Lux asking adult Art – for a character to remember something real, acknowledging that memories can be false.
There’s something deeply profound about this observation:
An excerpt of a longer speech said by Iris to her conservative, racist sister about the refugee crisis:

the gist of it

I have not read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. (I am endlessly amazed at the gaping holes in my personal library, the great works I’ve never got around to reading, in spite of the many novels I devour each year – more than 120 books this year alone).  My reason for not reading A Christmas Carol probably has something to do with me being Jewish and my immediate repulsion at anything literature or media with Christmas in the title, except for Doctor Who because as varied as they may be in quality, the Doctor transcends Santa and the birth of Jeebus.  At least that’s what I tell myself.

I raise this because the astonishing Winter not only references Dickens and his famous novella but also borrows the themes from the book – or at least what I believe to be the themes based on the osmosis of pop culture, i.e. memory and the passing of time.  Like Scrooge, Sophia has the opportunity to recall her past while living lonely and bitter in the present.  It’s her son Art who gets a glimpse of a possible future.  All of this is, as it was with Scrooge, an act of redemption – both Sophia and Art have a more forgiving attitude to the world by the end of the novel.  The same, though, cannot be said for the world that Sophia, Iris, Art and the wonderful Lux – is she Marley’s ghost? the end hints as much – inhabit.  This is a world of Brexit and the refugee crisis and if in Autumn the commentary on the current moment felt at odds with the overarching story, in Winter there’s a seamless integration between the plot and the politics.  It’s helped that Iris, and Lux to a lesser extent, have a social conscience, that they are the ones who snap Sophia and Art from their inward-looking musings, their anxieties and miseries and force them to see the world as it currently is.  Above I quoted Iris’ speech to Sophia about the refugee crisis and it truly is one of the most powerful moments in the book, a point where the themes, the story and the politics of the novel come together.

Winter is a beautifully written novel with a dry, yet witty sense of humour and a great deal of compassion.  It’s not as optimistic as A Christmas Carol at least not from the perspective of the world.  But in terms of the individual, it does provide a sense of hope, that people can change, that they can go from the inward-looking to the outward.