Review: Summer by Ali Smith

Summer“… summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something. We’re always looking for it, looking to it, heading towards it all year, the way a horizon holds the promise of a sunset.”

I’d some reticence discussing Ali Smith’s “Summer,” given it’s the climactic novel in her Seasonal Quartet, and I’m unable to perceive it in totality, since I’ve only read “Winter,” and reviewing it piecemeal feels akin to examining an individual stone in a cathedral rather than its entirety. But when a stone is sculptured this magnificently, it’s worthy of close inspection. But where to start?

“Summer” is a novel of our times, almost up-to-the-minute; it’s 2020, Brexit has fractured Britain, Australia has suffered through cataclysmic bushfires, the young across the world are rallying against corporate greed and government ineptitude regarding the climate crisis decimating the planet, and we’re beginning to feel the effects of COVID-19. One of the book’s central characters, 16-year-old Sacha Greenlaw, surmises it best: “All manner of virulent things are happening.” Paralleling Smith’s snapshot of our present is her magnification of a slither of the past, which is a lesson for today. In the 1940s, during wartime, Britain detained “enemy aliens,” Daniel Gluck and his father among them, who at the age of 104 lives in a thunderstorm of memories.

“Summer” is the culmination of an extraordinary four year project, where sublots and characters collide in obvious and subtle ways, of which I recognised only a handful. Together, Smith’s Season Quartet represents a literary blockbuster: a portrait of worldwide tumultuousness somehow astonishingly exacerbated by her focus on smaller, individual stories.

I read “Summer” because I was assured it was a great novel by readers I trust, and that trust was validated. I will read “Summer” a second time because I know I have not mastered it; for that, I’ll need to go back to “Autumn,” “Winter” and “Spring.” The third time will be because I want to, pure and simple. I believe it will be a book — a quartet of novels — I return to, time and time again, for the rest of my life.

ISBN: 9780241207079
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 4th August 2020
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Review: Winter by Ali Smith

9780241207031Winter is the second novel in Ali Smith’s ‘Seasonal cycle,’ the first of which, Autumn, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, and lauded by several of my bookseller colleagues at Potts Point Bookshop. I purchased my copy of Winter based on the tidal wave of acclaim for Autumn, and because I wanted to jump on this particular bandwagon before it started moving.

Winter is set in the present day, in our bleak post-truth, Brexit-fractured, Trumptopian world. Ali Smith’s opening lines set an ominous tone:

God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalty was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they were all dead, and art was dead. Theatre and cinema were both dead. Literature was dead. The book was dead.” 

But amidst such perceived awfulness and desolation, the author finds humour, happiness, and even a bit of hope, to make Winter far more heartening than you might initially think.  Because at its heart, boiled down, this is a Christmas story, about a fragmented, disjointed family reuniting over the holiday period. The dramatis personae includes Arthur, his mother Sophia — the equivalent of Scrooge, whose work has always taken precedence over family — and her politically-impassioned sister, Iris; and the Croatian refugee called Lux he’s roped into impersonating his girlfriend, Charlotte. Each of these characters feel genuine, struggling with their own inner turmoils and insecurities, bonded by blood but little else. The novel’s driving question is whether their burned bridges can be mended, or whether the despairing state of our world is destined to reflect their relationships.

Winter shifts backwards and forwards in time, and keeping track of these various threads is a rewarding experience in itself, and not at all a daunting one. Smith’s prose is masterfully detailed and elegant; she writes the sumptuous sentences that deserve re-reading, and makes for irresistible page-turnability. It is a true pleasure getting lost in the work of a storyteller radiating such confidence in her craft. This is a novel that can be read at face value and enjoyed purely as a Christmas story; or if you so desire, it’s one you can truly sink your teeth into, dive deep into its themes and motifs. It’s a book you can study.

This is my first time reading a novel by Ali Smith, and it wont be my last. With Autumn already waiting in my reading stack, and How To Be Both staring at me from across the bookshop counter as I type, it’s only a matter of time before I sample her work again. Winter is just a very enjoyable, easy to read, and timely novel. A joy to read, and one to return to.

ISBN: 9780241207031
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 208
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 2-Nov-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom