Tuesday 24 September 2019

Welcome to Britain's Winter of Brexit discontent

A dense, complex read that is still satisfyingly bingeworthy,Winter is Ali Smith's more nuanced follow-up to her Booker-nominated Autumn

Unshowy writing: Ali Smith
Unshowy writing: Ali Smith

Tanya Sweeney

Where her Man Booker Prize- shortlisted novel Autumn was set in a season traditionally associated with decay, the drawing-in of days and starting over, Ali Smith has now moved to the bleakest, frostiest season. Yet winter is also a time of festive jollity and forced familial merriment. The second in her four-part Seasonal quartet (Spring and Summer are on their way), Winter starts on a "bright, sunny, post-millennial, global-warming Christmas Eve morning".

The tale unfolds in contemporary Britain; one with high-street opticians, tower blocks destroyed by fire, politicians "whose interests leave words meaningless" and Twitter-hacking ex-girlfriends. The brittle sixty-something Sophia (Mrs Cleves to you, if you don't know her well) is 'welcoming' family home to her sprawling Cornwall house for Christmas. Among them is her older sister, Iris, who is spirited, imaginative and personable.

Theirs is a complex, fractious relationship - they're the type of sisters who tell each other "I hate you" while hugging.

The full extent of their tensions unfurls spectacularly in the book. Brought up by a father who endured PTSD after serving in the war, Iris became a committed activist (she is still helping refugees in Greece) while Sophia's ambition propelled her to great professional success. And in so many ways, little has changed, either for the sisters or in the world, since the 1970s and 1980s.

Also incoming for Christmas is Sophia's twenty-something son, Art, freshly single and humiliated. A dedicated nature blogger, Art is suffering the ignominy of his scorned girlfriend hacking his Twitter account and sending rogue tweets. On his way back to Cornwall, he happens upon Canadian-Croatian student Lux, herself a casualty of Brexit Britain, and he pays her to pose as his dedicated girlfriend, Charlotte, for the trip home.

Lux is a revelation, a young girl particularly taken with Shakespeare, who admits she came to the UK because of Cymbeline: "I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end, where the balance comes back and all the losses are compensated … then that's the place I'm going," she thinks. For Smith fans, Lux may call to mind Amber in The Accidental: another stranger with a fresh perspective who upends a family get-together. Yet Art's return to the family fold isn't your garden-variety homecoming: the fridge is empty and the house is cold and dark, for a start. Whatever about trying to engage with his mother, there are ongoing questions about his father looming large.

As it happens, Sophia has had company in the house already, in the form of a disembodied head that follows her around. It turns from a cherubic child or the figure of local saint Newlina to an old man.

Thanks to Sophia's parade of visions and previous lives, Winter calls to mind A Christmas Carol, if Dickens had been around in Brexit Britain. Where 'no room at the inn' has become 'no more room'. Just as the Cleveses are a family divided and hurting, so, too, is the country they live in.

Winter is not necessarily a sequel nor a companion title to its predecessor, Autumn, even if Sophia appears in the latter, albeit tangentially. Still, there are striking similarities between the two novels. Smith's scope - flitting between eras in flashbacks and flash-forwards - is writ large in both books.

In a theme familiar from Autumn, where overlooked artist Pauline Boty became part of the story, artists Ethel Walker and Barbara Hepworth make an appearance in Winter. Similarly, the EU referendum and Trump's ascension to manning the free world's rudder form part of the backdrop to both books.

In Winter's case, it has become a source of familial tension (Smith doesn't hold back on her own take on the current climate). Mentions of Grenfell Tower, which was engulfed in a fire just five months ago, and Trump's presidency, hint that Winter was written and published with impressive expediency. Still, Winter, with its assured writing and plotlines, isn't anyone's idea of a rush job.

As ever, Smith's deceptively unshowy writing evokes every shade of emotion, particularly in the final few chapters of the book. Themes and experiences entangle, making Winter a dense, satisfying read that can still be completed in an afternoon or two.

Occasionally, this tangle, more nuanced than that of Autumn, can appear complicated, and it takes concentration to keep on top of the varying strands.

It's to Smith's credit that Winter works on a number of levels, from a straightforward, quotidian tale about a fractured family to a deeper story packed with symbolism and highbrow literary references: a subtle meditation on loneliness, loss and ageing in uncertain times.

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