“As of this moment Art has had enough of Christmas. He now knows he never wants to see another Christmas Day again.
What he longs for instead, as he sits at the food-strewn table, is winter, winter itself. He wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it, the ground underfoot snow-covered as if with frozen feathers or shredded cloud but streaked with gold through the trees from low winter sun, and at the end of the barely discernible track, along the dip in the snow that indicates a muffled path between the trees, the view and the woods opening to a light that’s itself untrodden, never been blemished, wide like an expanse of snow-sea, above it more snow promised, waiting its time in the blank of the sky.
For snow to fill this room and cover everything and everyone in it.
To be a frozen blade that breaks, not a blade of grass that bends.
To freeze, to shatter, to unmelt himself.
This is what he wants.”
Another stunning entry in the Ali Smith canon, this one the second in her Seasonal quartet and coming closely on the heels of its predecessor, Man Booker Prize short-listee “Autumn”. Winter is supposedly bleak, atonal, lifeless. Ali Smith’s “Winter” is anything but.
Smith has set her newest treasure in modern day England, a few days before Christmas. In typical Ali Smith style, the reader first meets the characters of “Winter” through their inner, often fantastical, even hallucinatory, thoughts. Sophia is bent, possibly broken, and alone in a country house full of stock from her failed shops. She is Ebenezer Scrooge with a loosening grip on reality. Her son Art (a bit of a nightmare, really) is a man who makes his living trolling the internet for copyright infringement for a mega-company and who spends his spare time fancying himself a philosopher and nature blogger steeped in the ethos (and mythos) of a post-truth world. Just in time for the Christmas holiday, Art has enraged his girlfriend, who can no longer tolerate his tepid attention to the world and his spineless attempts at truth.
“The people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote, she said, and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one, and a very dangerous game to play. And what’s happening in the United States is directly related, and probably financially related.
Art laughed out loud. Charlotte looked furious.
It’s terrifying, she said.
No it isn’t, he said.
You’re fooling yourself, she said.
The world order was changing and what was truly new, here and there, Charlotte said, was that the people in power were self-servers who’d no idea about and felt no responsibility towards history.
That’s not new either, he said.
They were like a new kind of being, she said – like beings who’d been birthed not by real historied time and people but by, by –
he watched her sitting on the edge of the bed with one hand on her collarbone and the other waving about in the air as she struggled for the right comparison-
By what? he said.
By plastic carrier bags, she said.
Eh? he said.
That unhistorical, she said. That inhuman. That brainless and unknowing about all the centuries of all the ways that people carried things before they were invented. That damaging to the environment for years and years after they’ve outgrown their use. Damage for generations.
It. Was. Ever, he said.
Then after a pause, he said, Thus.”
Rather than face his somewhat terrifying mother alone, Art engages the services of Lux, a stranger at the bus stop who surprisingly agrees to act the part of his (now ex-) girlfriend. But when Art and faux Charlotte arrive in the countryside, they find that Sophia is more than they can handle. Soon they have conscripted Iris, Sophia’s estranged older sister, who has long been enraged by the world’s tragedies and man’s inhumanity to man and who now travels the world trying to right its wrongs.
Like many of Ali Smith’s works, “Winter” is built on character, on inner dialogue, and on experimental form. Where “Autumn” was a deep exploration of love and friendship, “Winter” has applied the unforgiving starkness of its season to look at truth, perspective, and how these are manipulated to the detriment of millions. Smith is unafraid to indict past and present offenders of global and personal wrongs. Her Seasonal quartet, billed as a post-Brexit missive, has much to say about the state of the world and the dangers of denying and refuting truth. And in case any of this gives you pause, just remember that this is Ali Smith’s newest novel and it is exquisite.
Thank you to Pantheon Books for providing a complimentary Advance Review Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.