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Ali Smith: Winter

This is the second in Ali Smith’s seasonal tetralogy and is set not just in winter but around Christmas. Our main characters are Sophia Cleves and her son, Arthur (Art). Sophia had been a successful businesswoman but is now in her sixties and living alone in a huge house in Cornwall and showing her age. The father of Arthur was Godfrey Gable but the relationship between Godfrey and Sophia was fairly brief. Arthur tells us that he had met him just twice and that he is now dead. Sophia has an older sister, Iris. Sophia was always considered the responsible one, while Iris was the irresponsible one. Iris clashed with their father, a racist and bully, and he eventually threw her out of the house. She has strong leftist views. She was part of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and has since become a committed environmental activist. The two sisters do not get on and, indeed, at the beginning of the novel, they have not seen one another for many years.

Sophia has one issue which we learn about at the beginning of the book. Initially, she had what seemed to be a speck in the corner of her vision. This speck gradually grew and is now a well-formed, disembodied human head. It does not talk though does seem to react to her when she talks to it. It does follow her around. It is not frightening. On the contrary, she is rather taken by it and treats it almost like a well-loved pet.

Perhaps because of his upbringing with a single parent and, moreover, a parent who was committed more to her business than to parenting, Arthur is insecure and fairly solitary. Arthur has managed to get a good job working for for SA4A, probably a proxy for the real G4S. While surfing the web, he had come across a Portuguese film that had had only forty-nine views. The film had used footage from some copyrighted material belonging to SA4A so he notified SA4A. They were so grateful that they offered him a permanent job tracking down other copyright breaches. As this job pays well, allows him to watch films which he would otherwise be doing, allows him to work from home and to work at any hour he likes (late at night is his favourite), he is very happy to have the job. It is clear that Smith and his substitute girlfriend, Lux, do not approve.

Arthur has one non-remunerative interest – he has a blog and Twitter account wittily called Art in Nature. The blog is meant to share his love of nature though, given that he lives in London, it is not entirely clear how he does this. He does have followers though not too many,

Arthur has a messy love life. At the beginning of the book, he is with Charlotte, a beautiful (according to Arthur) woman but a very temperamental one. However, the relationship is ending and it is ending violently. She tears up his notes and throws them out of the window and smashes his laptop. After leaving, she goes into his blog and Twitter feed and makes inappropriate comments.

Arthur had been planning to travel to Cornwall to see his mother for Christmas and had said he was taking Charlotte with him. This is now no longer possible. Being somewhat practical, he notices a young woman looking at a sandwich menu. He buys her a sandwich and offers her £1000 to pretend to be Charlotte and accompany him to his mother’s. She accepts. It is not till they are en route that Arthur finds out her name (Lux, apparently from Velux, though Arthur is not convinced that is her real name). She claims to be twenty-one but seems younger. She also has a lot of piercings, which she removes when they arrive at his mother’s house. However, she does seem to be the most normal and rational of the main characters. She also seems to be of foreign origin as she has a slight accent and struggles with a few English idioms.

A Christmas reunion/dinner is a common way for authors to get relationships established and challenged, and to lay out ideas and Smith uses this idea here. Not surprisingly, things do not go well chez Sophia. She was not expecting them. She is sitting at the kitchen table, the heating turned up and wrapped in lots of clothes. Between them Lux and Arthur try to sort things out and end up phoning Iris, who arrives in the middle of the night.

Discussions take place with the past being dragged up and Lux’s identity established. It is Lux who is the glue that seems to bring them (more) together. The two sisters struggle to be normal. Many of Smith’s favourite ideas are aired – women’s rights, particularly in reference to Greenham Common, the environment, Brexit and refugees, including the idea that, post-Brexit, EU nationals in the UK may have to leave or, at least, will have their rights curtailed. Women artists are mentioned as happened in Autumn, her previous novel. This time it is Barbara Hepworth, who lived and died near where Sophia lives, and Ethel Walker, who also spent time in Cornwall.

Autumn was reputedly the first Brexit novel and Brexit is still alive in this novel – the two sisters disagree on it. The UK is compared to the situation in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (A play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning). However, the people in the book are also compared to the play (the people in the play are living in the same world but separately from each other, like their worlds have somehow become disjointed or broken off each other’s worlds, which more or less sums up the plot). Smith is telling us that we need to work together, both as regards Brexit and our personal relationships.

This review is written late 2018, with the Brexit situation in total Cymbeline-like chaos and people in this country and elsewhere broken off each other’s worlds. Smith, as always, makes her point very well. Arthur and Sophia and, to a certain extent Iris (as well as Charlotte), seem adrift, unsure of who they are and where they are going. Lux tries to bring them together and, for a brief moment, almost succeeds. It will interesting to see how she succeeds with the two remaining books in the tetralogy, with Brexit much advanced and/or a reality.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Hamish Hamilton