Winter by Ali Smith, book review: Trademark mischievous wit and wordplay

This year's Man Booker shortlisted author's book 'Autumn' is followed by 'Winter', the second of her 'Season Quartet', but it is not a sequel 

Lucy Scholes
Wednesday 01 November 2017 13:16
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Hot on the heels of Autumn making this year’s Man Booker shortlist comes Winter, the second of Ali Smith’s Season Quartet. In the same way that Autumn spoke directly to the contemporary moment – “Here’s an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening” – so too Winter is set in a recognisable world, not the dead of winter of a Britain of yesteryear, but rather “a bright sunny post-millennial global-warming Christmas Eve morning”.

It’s a story “about real things really happening in the real world involving real people in real time on the real earth”. That said, it does begin with a floating, disembodied child’s head – mute and not obstructive in any way but decidedly “tenacious”, this being its fourth day in Sophia Cleves’s house. Such aberrations make sense in a Smith novel though – or, at least, they don’t not make sense.

Winter isn’t Autumn’s sequel, there’s no carry-over of characters or story, but there are structural similarities between the two volumes, both in terms of the dynamic of a younger generation in dialogue with an older, and the central role played by an artist and their work.

At the heart of the story is Sophia and her older sister Iris, the former a retired businesswoman in her sixties, the latter a lifelong activist (cue Greenham Common flashbacks, and with them context for contemporary protests), and their interactions with Sophia’s twenty-something son Art, and Lux, a Croatian-Canadian immigrant whom he pays to pretend to be his girlfriend for Christmas.

Where Autumn wove the story of forgotten Pop artist Pauline Boty into its pages, here it’s the more famous Barbara Hepworth who plays an important role. (Art’s father was a fan, introducing Sophia to the work.) What would be clunky in another writer’s work is seamless in Smith’s, and integral too. As Iris attests: “Art is seeing things.” So too Smith’s prose – that trademark mischievous wit and wordplay, a joyful reminder of the most basic, elemental delights of reading – makes us see things differently.

Admiring one of Hepworth’s sculptures, Sophia moves round it, gazing at it from multiple angles: “It makes you walk round it, it makes you look through it from different sides, see different things from different positions. It’s also like seeing inside and outside something at once.” This is also a brilliant description of how Smith’s novels work.

Although there’s no traditional Christmas miracle in Winter, the entire book is in it own way testament to the miraculous powers of the creative arts: “That’s one of the things stories and books can do, they can make more than one time possible at once,” Art explains. Winter firmly acknowledges the power of stories. Lux, for example, came to England attracted by Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “If this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is as the end ... I’ll go there, I’ll live there,” she thought. Infused with some much needed humour, happiness and hope, Winter too is it’s own graceful thing.

‘Winter’ by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

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