Ali’s Smith ‘Winter’ is a novel of the earth

Image courtesy of Hamish Hamilton.

Released in 2017, “Winter” marks the second installment in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. Although each novel has its own distinct plot and characters, and thus the four books can be read in any order, the quartet builds upon immutable themes to create a literary sequence that mimics the natural rhythms of the year. I discovered Ali Smith’s novels with the first in the quartet, “Autumn,” which I read over October Break. 

When I read “Autumn,” I didn’t exactly plan to read the future novels during the seasons that inspired them, but by the time Winter Break came around, I found myself needing a new story. Smith’s “Winter” was the one I landed on. 

The narratively disorienting, yet seemingly fluid novel focuses on the Cornwall Christmastime gathering of a woman named Sophia Cleves, her sister Iris, Sophia’s twenty-something year old son Art and a homeless Croatian lesbian named Lux, whom Art has paid to pretend to be his now-estranged girlfriend, Charlotte. 

For work, Art, the novel’s protagonist, watches films to find and report copyrighted material. But his real passion lies in the nature blog he runs, cleverly titled “Art in Nature.” However, since his break-up, his ex-girlfriend Charlotte has taken control of the blog, publishing purposefully incorrect content to humiliate him online. Art is an insecure, solitary character. He isn’t the person he wants to be—a serious naturalist and blogger—but rather someone who spends more time scrolling through Twitter than he does walking in the woods. 

And yet, Art seems to have the power to reunite estranged forces, namely his mother Sophia and her sister Iris, who have not spoken to each other in over three decades. Art calls Iris when he arrives at his mother’s home and realizes she lacks sufficient food for the impending holiday. Enter Iris: a vigilant political protestor in her 70s, who loosely co-raised Art with Sophia. The reunion of Sophia and Iris is thick with tension and opens a narrative of nostalgia, social and political differences and skeletons in the closet. 

Just as the dynamics that fill the family gathering reach a breaking point, Lux arrives, pretending to be Art’s (now former) girlfriend Charlotte. I found Lux to be the most fascinating character in the novel—the significance of her personage is evident in her name, meaning “light.” As the havoc of estranged sisters throwing insults at each other, Sophia’s encounter with a floating head (evidence of her slow mental deterioration) and Art’s decrepit love life crescendos toward chaos and confusion, Lux appears as complete clarity—she is able to tell the truth, even failing to lie long enough to conceal her true identity. 

Smith employs political commentary along with Shakesperian and Dickensian references throughout “Winter,” but her strongest cultural allusion is to the art of Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth. This connection to a female English artist is one of the threads that runs throughout all the novels in the seasonal quartet. But while Pauline Boty’s art played an immediate and tangible role in “Autumn,” the significance of Hepworth’s abstract, holey sculptures is more metaphorical. Smith’s comments on Hepworth and her work are sparse, but this description stood out to me in particular: “Yes, he says, and she does that, Hepworth, I think, puts the holes through what she makes, because she wants people to think about exactly what you just said, time, and ancient things, but also because she really just wants them to want to touch what she makes, you know, to be reminded about things that are quite physical, sensory, immediate, he says.” 

In many ways, “Winter,” like Hepworth’s sculptures, is a novel about empty space and how we reckon with it. Just as Art faces the empty space of his father’s absence, Smith forces her readers to reckon with the holes in her narrative. She grabs the past and layers it over the present until it is unclear what time we are existing in at all, and what, precisely, is real and what is imagined. 

The story moves forwards and backwards through time, ruthlessly approaching past iterations of the characters’ selves, but never quite coming close enough to give us a perfect understanding of who they are. Smith’s novel is not quite a narrative, but a collection of moments held together, like snowflakes cupped in one’s palm—each is related, yet distinct and incredibly transitory. She forgoes quotation marks, deliberately blurring the line between dialogue and descriptive experience. As the novel flickers between years, revealing important instants and conversations in these characters’ lives, the narrative begins to fade away. By the end, we are left with no real resolution to the events that have transpired in this Cornwall home, just the vacancy of the space this story briefly held. Smith’s ending reminded me of the concluding lines of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”—“This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.” 

This novel drew me to consider how the temporal calendar we directly experience and physically engage with year after year is reflected in our mindsets and lives. I’ve found that in the last six months or so, I’ve started to pay attention to how the earth’s rhythm mimics the flow of my own life. In autumn, the leaves dry and curl and fall to the ground. We must let go. In winter, the land is muted by snow and empty, bitter air. We are presented with a barrenness, a quietness, a painful, dimly illuminated peace that is necessary for the warm resonance of spring. 

Early in the novel, Smith defines winter herself. She writes, “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.”

As much as the inevitably natural changes and effects of winter can be refracted through our own selves and personal experiences, they can also be transposed onto the page. Smith does this in “Winter,” exploring the condition of the season through dreamy, disorienting, almost translucent prose. 

Even though “Winter” revolves around a sense of both internal and external grayness that we are all too familiar with this time of year, Smith’s story is equally hopeful. She describes how the solstice doesn’t mark the absence of light, but the coming of it. She writes, “There was this different quality to the light even only four days past the shortest day; the shift, the reversal, from increase of darkness to increase of light, revealed that a coming back of light was at the heart of midwinter equally as much as the waning of light.” 

With this, Smith suggests that maybe winter is not a season of perpetual grimness, but a waiting period, a growing period, a crucial moment of reunion with the self and family, before the inevitable blossoming of spring.

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