Ali Smith’s Winter

winterIn the second of Ali Smith’s new series, we’re now into winter, a season of things dead. In fact, the opening chapter later turns out to be a list of those things which, if typed into Google and followed by ‘is’ and ‘d’, come up as ‘dead

‘art is dead.

Then he tries the word masochism.

Masochism doesn’t come up as dead.

Love, however, is definitely dead.’

And for Art, the son of the aging, reclusive Sophia, living alone in Cornwall, and the nephew of the aging, politically-engaged Iris, love is certainly dead. His girlfriend, Charlotte, has left him, infuriated by what she sees as his solipsistic and ‘politically-selfish’ responses to the crises of the world around him. She maintains a half-presence throughout the novel through her hacking of Art’s Twitter account, using fake posts to humiliate him. She’s also destroyed his laptop, which means that he’s unable to return to his blog, Art in Nature (itself a brilliantly ‘Smith-esque’ pun). Art, for the sake of keeping up appearances, pays a young woman, the rather marvellous Lux, to accompany him to his mother’s house for Christmas and to pretend she is Charlotte. Fake identifies, fake accounts (Art admits to Lux that one of his most successful blog posts about puddles is based on a memory that he has made up), fake memories, all permeate the novel – most fittingly for a year in which ‘Fake News’ has been named by Collins Dictionary as its ‘Word of the Year’.

However, Smith also offers us a world, at the dying point of the year, which taps into our ties with the physical world around us. Stones, earth, a large chunk of landscape Art imagines floating above his head, offer some sense of permanence, although the dark nights of winter hold many mysteries too, and make for richly gothic moments. Stones, disembodied heads, shift shape, become smooth.

Like Autumn, Winter features a politically-engaged older woman, a member of the Greenham Common generation. Often at odds with the younger generation, Iris, like Elizabeth’s mother before her, sees the scope of problems more readily than her nephew, caught up in his own problems, is willing to. She’s been a political agitator from early on and is a vigorous voice in the novel. We’re perhaps reminded of the need to look at what is happening around us. However, Smith also gentky mocks the ‘quiet wisdom-from-experience aging-female’ trope, allowing Sophia to remain resolutely focused on herself, working very effectively as a foil to her sister.

Once again, cultural and social references are thoroughly embedded within the story. This time, Barbara Hepworth, Elvis Presley and Charlie Chaplin feature. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is evoked many times, explicitly and otherwise. Indeed, one of the structural devices of Winter, ‘Let’s see another Christmas. This one is the one that happened in 1991’ is the authorial voice which takes us, flitting through time, to land at different points in the lives of Sophia and Art so we can witness and perhaps understand. This is not the only time we are silent observers of events – as with Autumn, Smith reframes events of the past year, usually with unnamed protagonists (although Boris does get an amusing mention), so that we see them as from a distance, and so from afresh. Trump’s rallies feature, inevitably. The tragedy of Grenfell is captured simply. ‘The building has gone up in flames so fast in the first place because it’s been shoddily renovated, not being for the use or the residence of people with a lot of money. Another account of life in 2017 is the moment a female MP is ‘woofed’ at in Parliament:

A man barks at a woman.

I mean barks like a dog. Woof woof.

This happens in the House of Commons.

Smith’s dry recounting of Nicholas Soames’ behaviour needs little in the way of analysis. Her incredulity is evident. For me, this novel is, perhaps more so than Autumn, a reminder that women on the front line of political agitation and change face immense challenges.

Despite this, Winter, for all its title may suggest, is a warm novel, one of reunions and responsibilities perhaps being re-shouldered. It has the magic of the dark nights and the optimism that the season offers. It moves us forward into a new year and, eventually, Spring.

Read my review of Ali Smith’s Autumn here:

Ali Smith’s Autumn – the way we are now


4 thoughts on “Ali Smith’s Winter

  1. Pingback: Ali Smith’s volatile Spring | Books and Wine Gums

  2. Pingback: Ali Smith’s Summer | Books and Wine Gums

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