Review by Suzannah V. Evans
A disembodied head floats at eye level in a woman’s home, accompanying her out on shopping trips. A piece of landscape hovers ominously above a man’s head, threatening to crush him and his family while they have dinner. In Ali Smith’s latest novel Winter (Hamish Hamilton, 2017), the second of a seasonal quartet, the world is at once eerie and familiarly mundane.
Set over the Christmas period, Winter opens with a series of suspended quotations, pointing to some of the key figures haunting the collection, including Shakespeare, Barbara Hepworth, and Theresa May. Smith’s own prose is lilting, buoyant, not dissimilar to the strange head introduced in the first chapter as a figment of Sophia’s imagination. As the former businesswoman performs her morning ablutions, the head ‘bobbed and nodded merrily in the air next to her like a little green buoy in untroubled water’. Elsewhere, the head moves about ‘like a helium balloon bought at a country fair’. And images of lightness fill the novel. When Lux, the pretend girlfriend of Sophia’s son Art, describes the packing filler she handles at work, she says it’s ‘so light, it’s like holding actual lightness’. This weightlessness translates into Smith’s writing, which avoids speech marks, meaning that characters’ voices weave freely and fluidly in and out of the novel.
All this lightness contrasts to some of Winter’s gloomier themes. One of the novel’s opening quotations, placed at the bottom of the airy white page, is Dickens’s ‘Darkness is cheap’, and Smith turns her gaze to the turmoil and complexities of life in a post-Brexit world. Some of her irritations with contemporary life are minor, as when she parodies the speech of customer service: ‘a girl behind the counter suggests to Sophie that she tweet, post on Facebook or leave a review on TripAdviser as ratings really do make a difference’. At other times, they are more serious, and Smith explores the potential consequences (or non-consequences) of Brexit for each of her characters. Lux, the most endearing by far, has the most to lose: ‘And now I can’t get a good job because nobody knows if I’ll still be here this time next year or when they’ll decide we have to go’. Sophia’s idea of a compliment, on the other hand, is informing Lux, who is Croatian, that she accepts her ‘as every bit as English as myself’. Smith also references the Grenfell Tower tragedy of last summer, elsewhere charting the problematic rise of luxury housing: ‘He leaves the building through the side door; the old front entrance of the library building is reserved for the people who live in the luxury flats above the rest of the building now’.
States of decay and the effects of austerity are in evidence throughout Winter. The library, which Art takes recourse to only when his laptop is destroyed by his former girlfriend, has transformed its reference section with a sign which declares: ‘Welcome To The Ideas Store’. Whilst the rebranding is intended to signal dynamism, Smith highlights how the actual service is lacking. In Art’s case, only one of the available computers is working, and after being horrified by the level of online abuse he receives after his ex hijacks his Twitter account, he flees to the toilets only to find that there is only ‘lockable working door’ that he can hide behind. Elsewhere, Sophia’s fifteen-bedroom house is filled with old homeware stock she used to sell; things that people ‘used to like buying, before they didn’t have the money to’. Generational differences are also explored: ‘Me, me, me’, Iris, Art’s aunt says to him, ‘It’s all your selfish generation can ever talk about’.
Talking and communication are at the crux of Winter. ‘The slightest human exchange is complex in the extreme’, notes Sophia, as she engages with her ‘Individual Personal Adviser’ at the bank. The exchanges in Smith’s novel are familial, political, tending more often than not towards miscommunication. When Lux tells Art how she explained his hallucinatory landscape to Iris, the results are comedic, offering unexpected meaning: ‘I said, Art is seeing things. And your aunt said, that’s a great description of what art is’. One of the rare examples of successful communication is a wordless one. Towards the end of the novel, Sophia remembers meeting the ‘love of [her] life’. When they first make love,
It’s not like sex. It’s like she’s been heard, seen, paid attention to, not shagged or fucked or screwed, not like just sex – more like something she’s never, something that she hasn’t a name for. Something she can’t put into words happens.
The wordlessness of the encounter, the impossibility of pinning it down, writing it up, or off, is evident in Smith’s slippery sentences, the breathless lack of an ending in ‘more like something she’s never’.
While her characters might sometimes be lost for words, Smith never is. Perhaps in defiance to some of the themes of miscommunication, Smith’s novel is full of dense wordplay and playful prose. She weaves in allusions to literature and song, so that when Sophia thinks of the floating head, ‘What can I give it? Poor as I am?’, the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem, and subsequently the hymn, sing in the reader’s mind. Elsewhere, ‘a still point in the churning crowd’ provides an eerie echo to T. S. Eliot’s ‘At the still point of the turning world’. Characters also duplicate each other’s speech, perhaps to show how ideas are repeated over time. After her father’s funeral, Sophia says to her son, ‘Well, that’s life and time for you’. Several pages later, Iris mirrors her words: ‘That’s life, and time, for you’. Smith is also interested in the question of how to represent ordinary speech. She attempts to replicate genuine speech rhythms in sentences such as Lux’s: ‘I suppose what I’m saying, Lux says, I mean about the manger, is. Is it a manger they put the baby in because the baby’s going to be eaten in the end?’ She’s also drawn to the phatic elements of speech. Lux, again, on Shakespeare: ‘it’s the same play they’re in, the same world, that they’re all part of the same story. So.’ That ‘is’, that ‘So’, charge the lines with a fierce contemporaneity even as Smith references the past.
Winter is a very clever book, then, its repetitions and verbal overlaps imitating the layerings of time – different Christmasses, different periods of each character’s life, different political mistakes – that make up the novel. The very things which make it clever, and so admirable a portrait of contemporary life, however, can also lend it a certain tediousness. Several of the conversational exchanges feel overlong, while in much of her writing on politics, Smith is likely preaching to the converted. For those who like their novels heavily sprinkled with witticisms, however, Smith can’t be outdone – or out-punned.
Suzannah V. Evans is a poet, editor, and critic. Her writing has appeared in the TLS, The London Magazine, Eborakon, The North, Coast to Coast to Coast, Time Present, New Welsh Review, and elsewhere. She is Reviews Editor for The Compass and an AHRC-funded doctoral student at Durham University, where she runs the T. S. Eliot reading group.