‘Winter’ is the second volume in the seasons cycle of novels by Ali Smith. It is loosely set at a family gathering in which twenty-something Art (Arthur) visits his mother Sophia Cleves in Cornwall over Christmas. Art has recently been dumped by Charlotte and hires a Croatian-Canadian immigrant, Lux, to pretend to be his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Sophia has a frosty relationship with her subversive sister Iris who has a long history of political activism.
Those who have already read Autumn, or indeed any of Ali Smith’s books, will know roughly what to expect from ‘Winter’. In terms of connections between the characters in the cycle so far, the overlap between the two volumes is fairly subtle, and they can be read as stand-alone novels. However, they are very similar in dynamic and structure and the plot of ‘Winter’ is typically non-linear and unconventional, seamlessly moving between historical and contemporary influences. Both books also interweave the life of an overlooked female artist with an up-to-the-minute take on recent world events. The fallout of Brexit and pop artist Pauline Boty were central to ‘Autumn’ while ‘Winter’ references Donald Trump’s presidency and British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The political themes in ‘Winter’ are broader than those in ‘Autumn’. Libraries are an important setting throughout and Smith draws interesting connections between activism today and Iris’s involvement in the Greenham Common protests.
Reading Ali Smith’s prose is like being in a hall of mirrors – she is a writer who clearly loves language and exploring the meanings of words from every possible angle. I am not familiar with Shakespeare’s play ‘Cymbeline’ which is a key influence in this book, but Art’s description of it as “the one about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated” seems very apt for a novel set in a post-truth context. The prose is also stuffed with plenty of other motifs, symbols and puns which I enjoyed spotting along the way. The presence of Lux (meaning “light”) has a significant impact on the family, and other reviewers have already noted clear parallels with the outsider character Amber in ‘The Accidental’. The opening is particularly striking and is later revealed to mean something entirely different from what it first appears to be. Smith read this passage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last August just after submitting it to her publisher and as with all of her prose I have come across so far, it is even more mesmerising when read out loud.
The beginning and end of ‘Winter’ are bleak, but there are also moments of hope throughout. It will be interesting to see if ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer’ will be any more optimistic in tone, but it seems that may be largely dependent on how world events pan out over the next couple of years.