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Winter by Ali Smith

He wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness.

Ali Smith’s Winter, the second in her seasonal quarter, is as timely and topical as Autumn, which was billed as the first ‘Brexit’ novel. And again we see familiar snippets from the news appear: the vote is mentioned several times, as is a certain ridiculous president and the refugee ‘crisis’. One of the main character’s Lux is a Croatian student migrant unsure of her position in the UK since the vote, unable to find a proper job and sleeping rough where she can. She is a classic Ali Smith creation: mysterious, knowing, beautiful and witty, able to charm those around her and unearth secrets (much like Amber in The Accidental or Robin in Girls Meets Boy)

The story opens somewhat oddly with a flight of fancy that is rare but not unlike Smith: after a prologue proclaiming what is dead (many things) and a reference to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol we are told about Sofia and the floating head that now haunts her. It’s a device that is strongly used at the beginning but which losing its power as it goes along and so the metaphor rather falls apart, aside from some clever plays on words about heads. But Smith wants us to think about hauntings, mostly of the power of our past lives and family secrets.

Sofia, once the boss of multiple retail chains, is now living alone in a huge house in Cornwall awaiting her son’s, Arthur, visit home for Christmas and to meet his girlfriend Charlotte for the first time. While she waits she is followed about by the head, which is not sinister, only a presence which Sofia talks to while she reminisces about her childhood and time spent with her older sister, Iris, a radical in the family who protested tirelessly (and continues to do so) against nuclear arms and border control. Sofia sees her as the black sheep of the family and unlike her in all ways. Of course Smith throws everyone together, in the way that Christmas does (including Lux, the student/migrant her son picks up to pretend to be Charlotte after the real Charlotte gets into a fight). It makes for an explosive and entertaining Christmas gathering. Lux brings the unknown into the family dynamic. Another trope of Smith’s: bringing the stranger into the home and watching the family unit unravel and regroup in new ways.

The plot is really setting the stage to allow Smith to have her characters talk about the things she cares about: art, family history, protest, forms of communication, social media, what it means to be human, the natural world, storytelling. (Y’know the small things that make up a life.) And Smith does it so well, yes conversations can feel more like lectures at times, or far too witty for realism but Smith is aiming for something truer that realism. She wants to get at the core of things. And so characters will monologue about the natural world, or what it means to carry your family’s inherited trauma with you, or the plight of refugees or a story they once read about the artist Barbara Hepworth. All of this Smith weaves into a whole, bringing back topics and circling around, keeping her many plates spinning so that the reader is never without some interesting point to consider, some particular play on words to delight in.

Smith’s narration too is unusual in its form: she, like Dickens, is an omnipotent eye: moving and manipulating the reader, think of this and then this, let’s now jump to the future and now back to the past and let’s pause and consider this moment here. To me it is never heavy-handed or unwelcome, she does not lead you by the hand but rather lay out in front of the reader a myriad of ideas to consider and a multitude of emotions to parse and relationship dynamics to unpick.

This is a novel in part about Art in Nature (also the pun used for Arthur’s nature blog, most of which he makes up) and it is about the now, the everyday, the difficult conversations we have with family who hold views opposed to our own and what bridges we can build between them, the blurred lines between familial love and ideological discord. The messy in-between spaces, the people that enter our lives, shift our perspective and then leave, the shifting sands on which we all build our shaky, uncertain but beautiful lives.

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