In celebration of British summertime, my thoughts on ‘Winter’ by Ali Smith.
They say timing is everything, and so it is that after the balmiest weather we’ve had in the UK for a long time, I’ve finally got around to write about Winter by Ali Smith. Well, the seasons might be out of step, but the political climate of the novel is still very much in synch. Like Autumn before it, this, the second in a series of four seasonal novels, has a ‘work in progress’ feel to it. Smith raises as many questions as she answers, but this is no bad thing, as the raw edges leave you pondering.
A family gathers for Christmas in a house in Cornwall. Sophia, who owns the house; her sister Iris, with whom she has always had a difficult relationship; Sophia’s grown-up son, Art; and Lux, the girl he has paid to pretend to be his girl-friend. Like most families, this festive drawing together is more like a battle re-enactment than cosy re-union, with each participant acting out their well-worn scripts, re-hashing their all-too familiar, shared dysfunctions.
Sophia has made her fortune from plundering the world’s riches, buying for pennies and selling for huge profits – like Britain. She is still thought of as a successful business Titan, but she has fallen on harder times of late, and the money has run out – again, like Britain. Iris, in contrast, is a campaigner. She represents the counter-culture, the history of resistance and the fight for social justice. I found the ensuing passages about Greenham Common very moving, a timely reminder of the bravery of the women who left their home lives and families to make a stand against the escalation of the nuclear arms race. When we unite, we are stronger. It is no surprise that the Brexit divide takes centre stage over this Christmas table, with Sophia choosing to Leave while Iris is a staunch Remainer.
While the sisters spat from their opposing sides, Art is more concerned with containing his elaborate deception. He has recently split up from Charlotte, his girlfriend, but wants to conceal this from his mother. Lux’s behaviour is threatening to unveil the masquerade, and meanwhile, Charlotte has been running amok on Art’s nature blog. In anger she’s been posting incendiary nonsense and ludicrous false ‘sightings’ of birds in unlikely places, causing twitchers across the land to head off in pursuit, binoculars and thermos flasks at the ready. While Art is forced to grapple with the consequences of fake news, Lux seems to shine a light on things. Like in The Accidental, Smith uses an outsider to bring the other characters together. In this case, is the stranger who, rather like a one woman Greek chorus observes and comments on the divisions between Art, his mother Sophia, and her sister, Iris. Commenting about Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, she says:
…it’s like 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. But if they could just step out of themselves, or just hear and see what’s happening right next to their ears and eyes, they’d see it’s the same play they’re all in, the same world, that they’re all part of the same story.
And then on Brexit:
But what will the world do…. if we can’t solve the problem of the millions and millions of people with no home to go to or whose homes aren’t good enough, except by saying go away and building fences and walls? It isn’t a good enough answer, that one group of people can be in charge of the destinies of another group of people and choose whether to exclude them or include them. Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous. We’ve got to come up with a better answer.
In showing us this family in conflict, Smith doesn’t just present us with a reflection of who we have become. Like an dystopian version of A Christmas Carol, she uses spectral presences to show us the error of our ways. At the start of the novel, Sophia is visited by the floating head of a baby, perhaps that of Newlina, the patron saint of the local village, symbolising the need for renewal and rebirth. Later, over the Christmas meal, it is Art who imagines the looming presence of a huge precipice of land hovering above them all, threatening to fall and crush them, a chilling reminder that whatever divides us, we will all be returned to the soil in the end, and if we don’t desist in our decimation of the planet, the end might come sooner than we think.
From Dickens, Prometheus Bound via Paddington Bear, Cymbeline to Bowie, Smith nods to so many well-loved novels, plays and other cultural references and evokes a strong sense of a rich cultural heritage which we share, binding us at a time where all feels shattered. I’d never realised the power of Christmas carols to bond us by the simple tradition of festive repetition. Smith reminds us that shared stories are what make us, keep us connected. I found that profoundly moving, and it kept the disparate fragments of the novel pinned together.
As well as this rich infusion of references, Smith’s prose is peppered with impish word-play. The clever toying with meanings and puns more than made up for any jagged edges in the text. It also provided a wonderful relief to the weightier elements of the novel. I thought it felt rushed in places, and I was, frankly, baffled at some sections, but then I also felt like this about How to be Both. I wondered whether Smith has perhaps over-estimated what we’ll pick up from the text and hasn’t communicated clearly enough what she’s trying to say – or, alternatively, it could be that I’m just twp!
Around this shared Christmas meal, Smith weaves other threads, some of which echo themes from Autumn. When Sophia visits the Opticians and the local branch at the Bank, fake joviality masks the cold face of corporate capitalism, like in the post office scene from Autumn. Automation is cheap, but at the cost of both humanity and efficiency. Like Pauline Boty in Autumn, Smith also refers to the work of a female artist in Winter, on this occasion, Barbara Hepworth, who lived and worked close to the novel’s location, and there is a wonderful description of Sophia’s engagement with Hepworth’s work towards the end of the novel. There was also a poignant mention of the Grenfell Tower tragedy that was almost unbearable to read, especially with the recent memorial service so fresh in my mind.
Art is crossing a sombre London. There is a burnt-out building at the heart of the city. It looks like a terrible mirage, a hallucination. But it’s real. 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. Many people died. There will be an argument happening all across politics and the media about how many people died because nobody can say for sure how many people were in the building that night, it being a place where a lot of people under the radar have been living. Radar, Art thinks. World War Two invention for flushing out invisible enemies. Standing on the tube in the heat he chances to read in a paper over someone’s shoulder a piece of writing about how people are crowdfunding, raising thousands of pounds, to fund a boat that intercepts and waylays the rescue boats sent out from the Italian mainland to help the migrants in trouble in the sea. He reads what he’s just read again, to make sure he hasn’t misread it. Natural? Unnatural? He feels sick to his stomach.
Overall, I found the novel a little fragmented like a mosaic and didn’t always know where it was going. However, the disparate elements began to come together towards the end, and since finishing it I’ve spent a lot of time brooding over the themes. Ultimately, Winter left me with the over-riding feeling that while we try and find a way forward and somehow mend the deep chasms that divide this land, we need to remember and hold onto what we have in common, our shared mythologies. Roll on Spring and Summer!