Product Promotion Network

Ali Smith, Winter, review: ‘A cold cultural wind blows in’

“God was dead: to begin with.” This is the punchy opening to Ali Smith’s new novel. “Literature was dead. The book was dead… History was dead.

The welfare state was dead. Politics was dead. Democracy was dead …

The internet was dead. Twitter, instagram, facebook, google, dead… Leaves were dead.

Flowers were dead, dead in their water.” It’s a death riff that recalls the feeling many had on the wintery precipice of 9 November 2016, when they awoke to find Donald Trump winning the US presidency[1]. “Thought was dead. Hope was dead.

Truth and fiction were both dead,” writes Smith. The book is set in the almost-present, last Christmas precisely. Trump and the machinations of Brexit play out in the background[2].

It is a novel about our newly minted post-truth era. Facts are questioned. Characters are lying – to themselves and to others.

Hallucinations, dreams and disputed memories pass by. Winter follows, naturally, from Autumn, Smith’s swiftly executed book published in Brexit’s tumultuous aftermath[3]. It earnt the Scottish writer her fourth Booker nomination.

Both make up part of a seasonal cycle of novels. They don’t share characters or plots, but the moods, rhythms and glimpses of the past grasped amid the relentless present are contiguous. It is Christmas Eve.

Sophia Cleves, once a successful businesswoman, is now elderly and alone. Today she’s scrambling to prepare for the arrival of her son, Arthur, and his girlfriend, to celebrate Christmas. She’s also seeing a phantom head – or is that merely some eye trouble?

Arthur is the writer of a blog full of high-flown flights of fancy called Art in Nature. He’s just split angrily from his girlfriend. The departed Charlotte has hijacked his Twitter account and is posting phony nature sightings.

Not wanting to arrive alone, Arthur pays a girl he meets at a bus stop to pretend to be Charlotte – she is, in fact, called Lux, a migrant with an enigmatic, keen intelligence. Art and Lux arrive to find Sophia in a strange state, perhaps verging on a breakdown. He calls for his aunt Iris, long-since estranged from Sophia.

The narrative dances around in bursts of past and present, including moments from Art’s life and from the childhood of Sophia and Iris. The latter is rebellious and leaves home for a life of protest.

She stays in squats and anti-nuclear arms protest camps. It is suggested that in the 1980s detectives leaned on Sophia to inform on her sister. Sophia has had a more orderly life, but for a marriage built on a convenient lie and a brief love affair.

Art’s father is not who he believes him to be. There are other tiers to the novel. News ripped from the day’s headlines impose themselves: Trump, the refugee crisis and Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” declaration.

More abstract concepts land, too: Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, Dr Johnson’s logical fallacies. Smith also brings things down to earth with acute observation and social comedy. The novel is at once conceptual and quotidian.

And it’s all embedded in a finely wrought sense of nature. It even moves towards some sort of redemption and reconciliation. Yet, just as it seems to be concluding on a positive note, it delivers a Trumpy sucker punch.

We are swept forward to July. The President is making speeches, attempting to ignite the culture wars by declaring his allegiance to Christmas. “In the middle of summer, it’s winter,” Smith writes. “White Christmas. God help us, every one.”

Winter.

Ali Smith, (Hamish Hamilton, ?16.99)

References

  1. ^ when they awoke to find Donald Trump winning the US presidency (inews.co.uk)
  2. ^ the machinations of Brexit play out in the background (inews.co.uk)
  3. ^ Smith’s swiftly executed book published in Brexit’s tumultuous aftermath (inews.co.uk)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *