Ali Smith’s latest novel debunks our expectations of fiction early on: this book announces itself to be “about real things really happening in the real world involving real people in real time on the real earth”. Turning to fiction for our truth doesn’t seem so incongruous in an era of fake news – yet while this novel is firmly rooted in present reality, it glories in false identities, untrue facts and surreal contradictions.
Following her Man Booker shortlisted Autumn, Winter is the second in a projected four-book cycle of novels loosely structured around the seasons and responding to current events. (Smith packs in references to the new £10 note, Grenfell Tower, Donald Trump’s travel ban, and Theresa May’s statement that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”.) While Winter features an entirely new cast of characters (though one works as a “copyright consolidator” for a shadowy security company mentioned in Autumn), it shares a setting – Brexit Britain – and various perennial themes: borders, family, empathy, and the deep-seated connections between politics and art.
Like Autumn, Winter is composed of a linear narrative (beginning on “a bright sunny post-millennial global-warming Christmas Eve morning”), which Smith cheerfully disrupts and interrupts, delving into characters’ pasts and occasionally their futures, bringing up memories they’ve forgotten and aspects of themselves they’ve tried to suppress, as well as riffing on their hallucinations, visions and fantasies.
Autumn invoked a divided country, full of “people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually becoming dialogue”. Here, we have a divided and dysfunctional family. Sophia, a “once-stellar international businesswoman”, lives alone in a 15-bedroom house in Cornwall, where she awaits her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte, who are due to visit for Christmas. Art, meanwhile, is in a quandary: Charlotte has dumped him, fed up with the insincerity of his nature-writing blog (he pontificates, in an excruciatingly earnest tone, about places he’s only seen on Google Maps).
Desperate, Art spots a young woman reading a Chicken Cottage menu at a bus stop, and they strike a deal: in exchange for £1,000 cash, Lux will come home with him for the weekend and pretend to be Charlotte, to help him save face with his mother. When they find Sophia shivering, silent and refusing to eat, it’s Lux – the stranger and foreigner – who manages to get Sophia talking about her past, and who reconciles the fractured family by inviting over Sophia’s estranged sister Iris, a squat-dwelling CND campaigner who decades ago was thrown out of the family home.
The novel is lucid and tightly constructed. From meditations on the art of Barbara Hepworth (herself an anti-nuclear campaigner) to the existential meaning of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/Nor the furious winter’s rages”), its disparate strands converge tautly to convey and deepen Smith’s powerful political message. We see Greenham Common activists chaining themselves to fences in protest at political leaders squandering money on destruction “while we can hear in our hearts the millions of human beings throughout the world whose needs cry out to be met”, and hear about the visa laws that have denied the bright, kind and curious Lux a job.
Sitting in a traffic jam, musing on the unfailing ability of Christmas music to move her, Sophia reflects on “this special point in the year when regardless of the dark and the cold we shore up and offer hospitality and goodwill”. This wintry spirit of benevolence animates Smith’s vision of a world where empathy overrides divisions and where animosity can melt like snow. Towards the end of the book, a coach full of people parks at the house.
Charlotte – who haunts the novel like a determined, mischievous sprite – has tweeted from Art’s account, claiming that a bird usually resident only in Canada has been sighted in Cornwall. As falsehood blurs into reality, strangers from all over the country have mobilised online and gathered together in common appreciation of this refugee bird and its welcome transgression of borders.
Smith’s voice, so wise and joyful, is the perfect antidote to troubled times: raw and bitter in the face of injustice, yet always alive to hope, however slight – like the buddleia that blossomed in the wreckage of cities after the Second World War, calmly continuing its own natural cycle oblivious to human destruction.
Francesca Wade is co-editor of “The White Review”
Hamish Hamilton, 322pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship