I didn’t get around to starting the final book in Ali Smith’s quartet, Summer, until that season had almost come to an end. During these last days of August days have started later and ended earlier, leaves are beginning to change colour in a light that is increasingly golden and when I leave the house for work in the morning the air feels crisp and autumnal. But reading Summer closer to the season this series started in fits better than I had anticipated as here we get to revisit some of the characters we got to meet over the year.
First, though, we meet Sasha and Robert Greenlaw and their mother Grace. Sasha is a bright and empathetic sixteen year old struggling with the state of society and the reality of climate change. If she could, she would single-handedly end all the injustice done to people and planet but as she can’t she is tirelessly committed to the little acts of kindness that can make a stranger’s day just a little bit brighter. Like writing letters to a man she has never met who has been detained at detention centre for years. Or spending all her money on a new pair of boots for her homeless fried Steve so he would be warm(er) in the winter. She is angry but optimistic, spurred on by a deep conviction that things cannot stay as they are. Her younger brother is equally angry but much less optimistic. Robert is brilliant but in his thirteen years he has already been through a lot. The cruelty of kids on the internet has left him deeply cynical about human nature and our chances for improvement. He does his best impressions of Nigel Farage to upset his activist sister and skips school to play mean pranks. As the rifts of the Brexit vote and the beginning pandemic are making people in the UK ever more hostile towards strangers, the Greenlaws meet two people they form an instant connection with. Art and Charlotte are on their way to Suffolk to meet someone on as per the request of late mother. Meanwhile, in a Suffolk home Daniel Gluck, who is cared for by his neighbour’s daughter, remembers that summer when he was interred in England during the second world war because of his German roots while his beloved sister Hannah was roaming Europe trying to help strangers escape the Nazis. Each of these characters have their own moving story, each carries secret fears and hopes and all are connected in more ways than they know. Strangers yet family, family yet strangers.
Summer started out a little quieter than the previous novels did but having spent three seasons with Ali Smith already I knew I was in for a thought-provoking and moving journey through relationships, politics – and literary forms and language themselves. Because first and foremost, Smith is a lover of language and beneath all the heavy political subjects explored in her work, these novels are prose poems that revel in playing with the meaning of words. The occasional instances in which her puns veer on the saccharine side are swiftly overlooked for the sheer and infectious joy in language that these books exude. In the meandering, stream-of-consciousness-style prose, Smith invites us into her mind as she watches recent events unfold. With an incredible publishing schedule, all for novels were written and published at breakneck speed to stay up to date with current developments. Astonishingly, this ambitious project never impacts the quality of the novels. Autumn, published in October 2016, dealt with the immediate reaction to the Brexit referendum.Winter, in November 2017, explored the rifts within families caused by toxic political debates of the time. In March 2019 Spring reacted to UK politician’s obsession with refugees coming to the country, even after Brexit was meant to have ended all that. And in August 2020 Smith returns to all of these themes, following the threads of recent political developments and assessing where they have left British society as it – and the rest of the world – faces the biggest challenge in recent history: the covid pandemic.
To all these political issues, Smith finds a response in art. Each of these four novels focuses on a small selection of artists to represent how art can be a tool to heal the wounds politics have opened. While many of the subjects she discusses appear bleak and frightening, Ali Smith reminds her readers that in the face of all the horror, the fears and cruelties, the harms that people cause each other and our planet we are connected by history and culture, we share a humanity that can be brought back to fore as it has been shown again and again over the centuries. For every greedy politician there is hordes of young people striving to make the world a better place. For every act of cruelty, there are myriad acts of kindness. Smith is often a harsh critic, she doesn’t hold back when it comes to expressing her anger at the state of the world. But she also shows us that change is possible and that everyone can do something, however small, to make it a kinder place.
Published in 2020