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Posted on 5 Jul 2018 in Fiction |

ALI SMITH Winter. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson

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Time and its ramifications of past and present and even a small look at the future are perhaps the main themes of Winter, with plenty of fun, wordplay and space in between.

Ali Smith has planned a suite of novels based on the seasons. The first of these, Autumn, was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2017. Winter, the second in the series, is a stunning and effervescing mix of philosophical ideas, beauty, wit, wordplay, indignation, topical social events and ridiculous situations. It is framed by a short but startling introduction where a Google search is used to comment on the number of things that are dead: ‘God was dead to begin with. And romance was dead and chivalry was dead.’

On and on it goes, through love and death itself and many other things. This comment on the prevalence of death is perhaps a reminder of the power of winter, but the novel has many reminders; for example, there are definite hints of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, nudging the reader to think of death, ghosts and misers in relation to some of the characters. In fact, Smith’s style seems geared to making the reader think of many other things – almost every sentence can be searched for extra meaning, not least because she enjoys puns and questioning the accepted meanings of words.

The story opens with Sophia Cleves talking to a disembodied child’s head at Christmas. She has been haunted by this head for some time and so she goes to have her eyes tested, revealing her rather formidable and conventional character at the office of the optician. She has a sister, Iris, who has been a thorn in the side of establishment politics all her life, whereas Sophia has been a successful businesswoman. They symbolise opposing ideologies in a very obvious way.

The fact that Sophia is rather formidable is underlined by her son Art’s fear of her, which prompts him to hire someone to impersonate his wife Charlotte, whom Sophia has never met, when he plans his Christmas visit. He doesn’t want his mother to know that Charlotte has left him after a spectacular fight where she attacked him for his nature blog @rtinnature and destroyed his laptop. Charlotte does have a case: his blogs about the environment seem very fake and his job is, rather distastefully, to detect copyright infractions and report on them. Charlotte’s revenge is to post embarrassingly incorrect information on his blog.

When Art and Lux, a perspicacious, practical and impoverished Croatian student, whom he has picked up in London, arrive at the mansion owned by his mother, they find her cold and shivering. Lux induces him to call Iris, who arrives and brings food. So the scene is set for memories and arguments to be aired. Smith does extraordinary dinner parties; the one in There But For The was unforgettable for its horrific dialogue, and the one that occurs here in Sophie’s 15-room house on Christmas Day is also marvellously revealing. We learn that Lux is a catalyst whose desire for truth propels the talk; we also learn that Art’s character is very much a product of his upbringing. We learn that Iris has fought the forces of evil all her life at some cost to herself and that Sophia has had several successful businesses and a short affair. This short affair is perhaps the thread that connects the first book, Autumn, with this one.

If readers are looking for a linear narrative, this is not the place to find it. Smith seems to want to prove that the past is always with us, so she includes historical pieces like the joyful girls who buy padlocks one day in 1981, planning to chain themselves on Greenham Common, or a small vignette from the present-day parliament. We learn that Sophie was stalked in the past and pressured by spies to reveal things about Iris. We also get a sort of self-reflective stream of consciousness from Art. Sophie’s obvious liking for Lux enables her to reveal matters that she has kept secret, and various flashbacks show the warmth of the sisters’ childhood feelings for each other. Lux is a wonderful character who came to England because of her delight in Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline, and incidentally Smith makes this a wonderful comment on the world today:

Cymbeline, Lux says.

A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning, and self-poisoning, his mother says.

Where everybody is pretending to be someone or something else, Lux says. And you can’t see for the life of you how any of it will resolve in the end, because it’s such a tangled-up messed-up farce of a mess …

I read it and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place I’m going. I’ll go there, I’ll live there.

So we are given insights into all the characters’ beliefs and lives, and topical situations such as the epidemic of lies to which the zeitgeist is exposed at present are also illustrated. Time and its ramifications of past and present and even a small look at the future are perhaps the main themes of Winter, but Smith also gives the reader a glorious glimpse of the power of art; Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures as well as Cymbeline are discussed and used to celebrate beauty and tactility.

With the exposition of the relationship between Iris and Sophia, and Lux’s comments on Cymbeline, Smith gives little hints of the power of love and the chance of hope. But it is possible to see see much of Winter in a different light and that is, I think, one of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing. No soothing narrative but instead plenty of fun, wordplay and space with which to form one’s own response. And my response is one of delight and avid expectation for Spring.

Ali Smith Winter Hamish Hamilton 2017 PB 208pp $29.99

Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.

You can buy Winter from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.