“God was dead: to begin with,” proclaims Ali Smith at the beginning of Winter, the second book in her seasonal quartet of novels. Alluding to the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, she provides a list of what else is dead: romance, chivalry, poetry, the novel, theatre, jazz, history, democracy, fascism, feminism, religion, the internet, death; all dead.
Using the classic Christmas story as Winter’s model, Smith gives us 2017’s Scrooge: Sophia Cleeves, a retired businesswoman who lives alone in a house large enough to sleep fifteen, estranged from her family. Obviously, a Leave voter. At the beginning of the novel, she has been visited by a disembodied head, “the head of a child, just a head, no body attached, floating by itself.” Like Marley’s spectre in Dickens’ tale, the ghostly head allows the narrative to float between the past, present, and future, causing Sophia to reflect on history and causation.
The ghostly head’s presence is felt throughout the narrative, watching over a fragmented family coming together for Christmas. Art, a nature writer and Sophia’s son, has recently split from his girlfriend, Charlotte. Requiring a stand-in Charlotte to bring home for Christmas, Art pays a stranger, Lux, to pose as his girlfriend. Completing the dysfunctional family affair is Iris, Sophia’s sister and polar opposite, an activist and, according to Sophia, a “mythologiser.” Winter is a novel concerned with mythology. Questions of what is real and fiction circulate the novel: Art’s father is a myth; Lux’s history is a myth. Societies create myths to explain the unexplainable, from gods to Santa Clause to the more recent myths of nationalism. If the quartet’s first novel, Autumn (2016) was “the first serious Brexit novel,” Winter, is the first serious post- novel. Post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth; Winter grieves and reconciles with the social and political upheaval of the last few years.
Writing and publishing within the current moment is a risky business. Without the luxury of time for self-reflection, a novel about the contemporary moment can feel reactionary. And Winter is undoubtedly reactionary. A quintessentially Ali Smith novel, interweaving familiar themes of family, art, history, and politics, Winter is also Smith at her most angry:
“Sophia had been feeling nothing for some time now. Refugees in the sea. Children in ambulances. Blood-soaked men running to hospitals or away from burning hospitals or away from burning hospitals carrying blood-covered children. Dust-covered dead people by the sides of roads. Atrocities. People beaten up and tortured in cells.
Also, just, you know, ordinary everyday terribleness, ordinary people just walking around on the streets of a country she’d grown up in, who looked ruined, Dickensian, like poverty ghosts from a hundred years ago.
An ode to the Victorian novel, Winter is socially and politically conscious of its position and it has an agenda. As a result, at times, characters stand in as representatives for larger political perspectives: Sophia, the Daily Mail reading Leave voter; Iris, the naïve left-wing protestor; Art, the politically clueless. Lux, a Croatian immigrant who works in a factory, runs dangerously close to playing the role of the Good Immigrant:
“I read it and thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place I’m going, I’ll go there”
Lux is referencing Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, a “play about a kingdom succumbed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning.” Replace “play” with novel, and you have Smith’s Winter. An antidote to the self-poisoning of recent times, this novel is Smith at her wisest, saddest, and angriest. And most hopeful. Now halfway through, Smith’s seasonal quartet has been an experiment in writing, publishing, and the role of the novel as a mirror within society. Let’s hope for bright things in Spring.
Winter is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton.