Winter by Ali Smith

by Ali Smith
Pantheon, 2018

Winter Ali Smith.jpg

Ali Smith’s Winter reads like a collection of feathers: little moments of being brushed by a brilliant phrase or tickled by a cheeky reference, and the full weight of such moments is only felt when you stack them all together. This second book in her Seasonal Quartet, following last year’s Autumn, offers a whole new set of characters. We open with Sophia, a retired businesswoman who now lives alone in a massive house in Cornwall, struggling with a touch of madness: She believes she’s being followed by a severed head. Her mental health doesn’t improve when her estranged sister, Iris, appears at her house on Christmas day, bringing with her a swathe of uncomfortable memories and radical political opinions.  

Then there’s Sophia’s grown son, Art, who runs a blog called Art in Nature (“I looked into the brown black [puddle] left by the rainfall on the surface of the path and I felt that at last my childhood had come to mean something more than it had done previously that day or any other day”). He and his girlfriend, Charlotte, have just broken up, but Art promised his mother that he would bring Charlotte home for the first time this Christmas. So, naturally, he finds a replacement: a stranger named Lux whom he finds on the street and pays to impersonate his ex.

The scene where these two meet epitomizes Winter’s gently subversive tone. Art notices Lux at a bus stop and is drawn to how engrossed she appears to be in her reading material. When he finally approaches her, it’s revealed that she’s reading a takeout menu – a setup that pokes fun at stereotypical narratives where strangers are impressed by each other’s profound book taste. But the scene rises above the level of a joke, because Lux is genuinely enjoying the experience of going through this menu and imagining what all the dishes would taste like. When Art offers to buy her something from her menu, she indignantly replies, “And spoil my perfect imaginings with the reality?” She might not have been reading Joyce or Proust, but she has been reading fiction in the purest sense: allowing words to create an experience in her head that remains sheltered from the outside world.  

Like all of Smith’s books, Winter is peppered with wordplay. After explicitly mentioning Trump for the first time on the final page, she refers to “White Christmas,” pairing the Irving Berlin tune with images of a resurgent white nationalism. The penultimate line of the novel reads, “God help us, every one,” which is in part a glum spin on the final line of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (“God bless Us, Every One!”). However, Smith’s version offers a dual meaning: the narrator could be asking the Christian God to help all of us, or the narrator could be asking every deity to come down and help – implying that that’s how much intervention we need at this moment in time.

As with Lux reading at the bus stop, the wordplay achieves more than a smile or two. Winter presents the English language in a deconstructed way, exposing just how perilously close so many words and phrases are to each other. As Sophia deals with her floating head situation, the narrator juxtaposes the words “a head” and “ahead,” having a head follow you around versus getting ahead in life. When Sophia, concerned by these visions, makes a trip to her eye doctor, the doctor asks if she’s been having trouble with her eyes, to which Sophia responds, “That remains to be seen.” The doctor laughs, but Sophia doesn’t mean to be witty; she’s simply the victim of an idiomatic coincidence. These moments allow the reader brief glimpses into how devilishly difficult English must be for foreign speakers, with one miniscule change in lettering or context conjuring up entirely different connotations.

This fascinating tactic of holding the English language at arm’s length serves two purposes: it celebrates the built-in imperfections in our communication system (making it seem like a minor miracle that we end up understanding each other at all); and it reinforces the perspective of Lux, who remains the book’s biggest enigma, but who we’re told is an immigrant from Croatia, and finds English idioms challenging. Interestingly, when Sophia learns that Lux is an immigrant, her mental concept of her changes so that “Charlotte” becomes “that foreign girl,” tying Lux’s presence in her house (and country) to the “us vs. them” mentality of Brexit.

At its core, this is a book of pervasive murkiness. Told in Smith’s characteristically brisk, stream-of-consciousness style, the narrative jumps from past to future to present, from chapter to chapter and within chapters. Often scenes from the past are told in present tense, and present scenes told in past tense. The narrative slyly riffs on A Christmas Carol, various Shakespeare plays, the nativity story, and other seminal texts, and all this jumping around leaves the reader with the slightly disorienting feeling of many time periods and voices coexisting within one story.

The liveliness of the four main characters helps shape this otherwise porous, amorphous book. In a superb Christmas lunch scene that brings them all together, Lux tells the drawn-out synopsis of a Shakespeare play about a princess and her jealous stepmother, a woodsman, fake poisons, and hallucinations. Art feels embarrassed for her, thinking, “Oh God. To make herself seem more like the imagined Charlotte, presumably, Lux is making up a terrible bland fairytale plot that’s nothing like Shakespeare and pretending it’s Shakespeare.” After several pages of this story that we’re led to believe is crazy, it’s revealed that the tale actually is Shakespearean: It’s the plot of Cymbeline. A similarly surprising moment occurs after an excerpt from the Art in Nature blog. Throughout the novel, Art is on edge because Charlotte has hacked his blog and Twitter accounts, periodically posting intentionally false information. When the novel finally includes an Art in Nature passage, it’s so ghastly, so unflinchingly pretentious, that the reader assumes it must be Charlotte writing a blistering parody of Art’s style. However, it’s soon revealed that this is a real post – that Art wrote those words earnestly.  

Smith’s overarching goal is to leave even astute readers unbalanced, never completely sure of what’s real in Winter. Real things seem fake, fake things seem real, serious moments come across as jokes and vice versa. This is the novel’s response to our current Fake News era, and its subtlety sets Winter apart from the more obvious methods of confronting political issues in Autumn. But despite the common description of this series as a reaction to Brexit, readers shouldn’t expect a bitter indictment of our political circumstances. Rather, in this harsh rhetorical climate, Smith manages something rather marvelous: She pokes fun at situations without ever becoming nasty, exposes the follies and shortcomings of her characters without judgment, and expresses concern about the state of the world without resorting to cynicism.   

Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer and EFL teacher working in New York.