Ali Smith’s 2016 novel, Autumn, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and acclaimed as the first serious post-Brexit novel. Winter, the second in her “Seasonal Quartet”, is just as stunning and continues Smith’s extreme engagement with reality.
The plot, such as it is, features Arthur, a thirtysomething cog in a mundanely evil corporation who dreams of being a nature blogger. He hires a Croatian immigrant, Lux, to impersonate his girlfriend, Charlotte, with whom he’s fighting, on a Christmas visit to his conservative, elderly entrepreneurial mother, Sophia. When things go awry, his aunt, social justice warrior Iris, joins them. Smith weaves in Sophia, Iris and Arthur’s past, and also Arthur’s future, with shorter musings that capture the political nuances of our Trump-era, intersectional, refugee-crisis world.
Readers don’t need to start with Autumn: there are no shared characters or plot points, though the fenced-off common that appears briefly in Autumn is more important here. The role of art (as in Art, short for Arthur) is again important in helping humans negotiate Smith’s impossible world, which is our impossible world, and there’s another featured artist – the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. And for all the serious political engagement, there’s real heart in the gorgeous relationship between Sophia and Iris. Here, they’re old women who haven’t seen each other in years:
Iris held her arm up in the air. She did this for Sophia to come under it. Sophia gave in. She came under the arm, put her head on Iris’s chest.
I hate you, Sophia said into Iris.
Iris blew hot breath into the hair on the top of Sophia’s head.
I hate you too, she said.
The symbolism and colours of winter pervade everything – the snow and ice and death –and at times Winter is almost unbearably true. How is it possible that Smith captures real-world events, as they happen, in print? The logistics alone are baffling and the creative effort seems impossible, like painting a photograph in 3D, in luscious oil. “... we’re living in strange times,” Iris says, yet somehow seeing it all precisely captured feels soothing – a reminder that, despite our individual feelings of bewilderment and dread, we aren’t alone. “Seasonal Quartet” will be a work of art that represents the first two decades of the 21st century, and Ali Smith will be regarded as the novelist of our time by future generations – if we survive. LS
Hamish Hamilton, 208pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 18, 2017 as "Ali Smith, Winter". Subscribe here.