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Ali Smith: Summer

This is the fourth and final book in Ali Smith’s Four Seasons cycle, about Brexit and much else. Indeed, the book gets on to the much else fairly promptly. It includes the Windrush scandal, the election of Boris Johnson as prime minister in 2019 and Dominic Cummings, the Australian wildfires of that year, environmental issues generally, Greta Thunberg, Trump and the religious right (God says that nobody, nobody who truly believes, could ever say anything bad or denigratory or damaging about our president), Brexit, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and of course the Internet. More importantly, it deals with the coronavirus, lockdown and the wearing of masks. Interestingly, most of these are not named (Windrush, Johnson, Cummings, Trump) so you may wonder what/who they are if you are not too familiar with British and world politics of the time.

We start by following the Greenlaw family, who live in Brighton. Mother Grace, a former actress, is bringing up her two children, Robert, aged thirteen, and Sacha, aged sixteen. She is separated from her husband, Jeff, who, surprisingly, lives next door, with his girlfriend, Ashley. His business is not doing well.

Much of the focus is on the two children. Sacha is very keen on environmental issues. She refuses (on the whole), for example, to travel in a petrol-driven vehicle. Robert is the more interesting one, in many respects. He is vicious and malicious but in an intelligent way. His role model seems to be the aforementioned Dominic Cummings though his interest in pornography (he watched a bit of porn like any self respecting 13 year old boy is ancestrally and congenitally bound to do) and has lustful feelings towards a thirty year old woman who visits the house, shows he has a touch of the Boris Johnsons.

He spends much of his time carrying out clever but malicious pranks upon his mother and sister who get annoyed but more or less tolerate him. His favourite online game is ABUSEHEAP which seems to focus on torture. He seems to be a loner, a criminal (he shoplifts) and very intelligent and observant. He is often in trouble at school and has no qualms about playing truant. He has also been in trouble with the police. He is also very keen on Einstein and somewhat obsessed about the fact that Einstein came to Britain, though apparently never visited Brighton. In short, like Dominic Cummings, he is a disruptor.

There are lots of discussion of current issues between the characters, such as the imprisonment of undocumented immigrants (a topic in the news in the UK; Sacha writes to one of them), cancel culture, poverty and some of the outrageous views expressed by said Cummings, which Robert often supports.

As in any good modern novel, language is key. Ashley is writing a book (which Robert has managed to sneak a look at) about language and, in particular, how many words have changed their meaning, particularly in the current political context. However, Ashley now seems to have stopped talking, including to Jeff. it is not clear why.

The issue of language and therefore communication (or lack of it) will remain key. We get the story of two deaf mutes who are talking intently to each other with their hands and by watching the shapes each other’s mouths or faces make. They do not realise that there children behind them mocking them but, as they cannot hear the children but can understand one another, they are content.

The issue of language is not new. One of the key stories involve Daniel Gluck. He is a German national but came to the UK as a child but neither he nor his father bothered obtaining UK nationality so, when World War II starts, they are enemy aliens. They are detained and sent to a camp in the Isle of Man. It is he who says Everything means something quite other now.

Gluck is still alive, aged 104, when the book opens in 2020. His experience, detention as a foreign immigrant, is replicated, as we see the undocumented immigrants detained in the UK in 2020. As mentioned Sacha writes to them. When the virus strikes, many of them are released to avoid overcrowding but have nowhere to go but, an elderly lady, Iris, with a large house takes many of them in. It this spirit, the sense of community responsibility that Smith points to as the positive, in the face of all the doom and gloom which she also mentions.

Community spirit is just one of the positives and this and other positives are key to this and the other three books. Nature and love of nature, which include environmental responsibility, is also important. We learn about swifts and more than one character enjoys nature during the book.

Art is also key. Many of those imprisoned in the Isle of Man during the war were German artists (in the broadest sense of the term) and try hard to continue their art, even in the confines of the camp, including one artist whom Hitler had personally condemned.

Each of the books had one key and relatively unknown female artist who appears and who is hailed as a guiding spirit. In this case it is Lorenza Mazzetti who had a particularly horrific early life and who comes to England where she becomes a film-maker and writer. We learn a lot about her.

Shakespeare is also key as regards art and our key play here is The Winter’s Tale. It is one of Grace’s earliest acting jobs and we follow her experience acting in this play.

The other key positive is a sound relationship. Many of the characters struggle with this but some certainly succeed. Often the enemy is the state – Mazetti and the Germans, the detained immigrants in the UK. It is the sense of community, of belonging that are important to them as, of course, to most of us.

Charlotte, a fairly key character in this book says, when her relationship breaks up Nothing more than an alone again naturally no matter how (the reference is to a Gilbert O’Sullivan song) and she very much bemoans her loss, finding redemption in helping Iris, the elderly lady (and aunt of her ex) with the immigrants in her large house.

Iris is just one of the characters we have met in previous books. SA4A, the security company that runs the immigrant centres and clearly based on G4S is another, They clearly represent the dark side for Smith.

This is not a plot-based novel, though there are many different stories which often (loosely) link up. We jump from story to story but while Smith uses the stories to make her points she does not rely solely on them and is happy to openly condemn Brexit, Dominic Cummings, the detention of immigrants, climate change denial and other unpleasantnesses of modern Britain and the modern world.

This has been a brilliant tetralogy and not just because it was one of the first Brexit novels and this one may well be one of the first coronavirus novels. Smith has superbly dissected modern Britain, pointing out the evils and flaws of society and of politicians but, at the same time, she has also pointed out what is positive. Brexit and Dominic Cummings bad, art and community spirit good. I can certainly support that.

Publishing history

First published 2020 by Random House