Friday 17 August 2018

Fraught Christmas back home - 'even in bleak midwinter, Smith is evergreen'

Fiction: Winter, Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

Winter by Ali Smith
Winter by Ali Smith

Tim Martin

Published barely four months after the Brexit referendum result, Ali Smith's novel Autumn opened with "go home" slogans daubed in English villages and people Googling "what is EU?", "move to Scotland" and "Irish passport application".

This, a sequel of sorts, has Trump boasting about making people say "merry Christmas" again, Nicholas Soames barking across the Commons chamber at Scottish National Party MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, and a fair whack of the sort of kitchen-table political debate that Smith is particularly good at capturing.

Winter may have taken a year to arrive instead of a few months, but make no mistake, Smith is still writing to, and about, the present moment.

One character from Autumn has a small, important part to play, but otherwise the cast is new. On the surface, it's the story of Art (short for Arthur, but Smith certainly has fun with the abbreviation), whose vengeful ex-girlfriend has just taken over his Twitter feed and started to post nonsense on Art in Nature, his beloved poseur blog about puddles and bird watching. Art is supposed to be taking the Twitter vandal home for Christmas to visit his mother in Cornwall; instead, in desperation, he offers £1,000 to a woman he meets at a bus stop to pose as her instead.

But home, when they arrive, isn't particularly Christmassy. Art's mother, Sophia, is a former businesswoman who now ping-pongs dismally around her vast country pile, hallucinating and refusing to eat in case she's being poisoned. Her sister Iris, once summoned, turns out to be a veteran Greenham campaigner and eco-warrior who knows just what part Sophia has played, across the years, in making her life miserable.

Art, too, starts to see things and his stand-in girlfriend Lux turns out to have a strange story of her own.

The Shakespeare play that bobs up and down in this Christmas story is significant too, of course. It's Cymbeline, the weirdest and most psychedelic of the lot.

Like most of Smith's novels, Winter is musical: its plots and timestreams intersect, change places and recapitulate one another. Compared to Autumn, it is a bit less about Brexit, a bit more about Christmas, but there is no great tonal shift: they are as alike as two different casts from the same joyfully weird mind. Ten pages in and Sophia is already talking to a floating severed head, and wondering whether it might like a trip to London, to Hamleys, to the Science Museum. Although devotees of Smith's stuff are likely to fill their bingo sheets in double-quick time with her repeating enthusiasms - childlike but not childish tone, outsidery thirtysomething protagonist, relationship between spry oldie and clever kid, recurring presence of a particular artist's life/work - that's no bad thing.

Smith is a specialist by now in using a quizzical, feather-light prose style to interrogate the heaviest of material. No exceptions here: throughout Winter, grief and pain (and homelessness, inhumanity, abandonment, you name it) are transfigured, sometimes lastingly, by luminous moments of humour, insight and connection. Very occasionally, the winsome tone can ring false but that seems a footling complaint about a book of such manifest humanity and charm.

One day, I'm sure, Smith will write a stinker, but for now, even in the bleak midwinter, she is evergreen.

© Telegraph

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