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Winter by Ali Smith

The seasons have changed, from Ali Smith’s Autumn but we are still in contemporary Britain and therefore still in political turmoil. Four enchantingly unique characters end up spending Christmas together (you cannot call it celebrate) in a house with fifteen bedrooms. Sophia once a successful businesswoman, lives alone in her Cornwall mansion, the one things in this world she has left. Not quite alone, though. Recently, she has been enjoying the company of a disembodied head. A child’s head, to be precise, occasionally shifting shape and morphing into something else. The head bops along next to her, nestles on her shoulder for comfort and reassures her with well-meaning glances. This gentle ghost reminds her of Christmases past while the bells keep ringing midnight for her, as she lives through various Christmases present and future. Sophia’s son Art – whose name is of course a wonderful tool in the hands of a gifted punster like Smith – has just been left by his girlfriend, who is now taking over his twitter account – Art in Nature – making absurd claims to confuse and enrage his followers. The breakup is irritating on another level: Art has no interest in showing up alone at his mother’s house, having announced she would meet his girlfriend of three years. So he pays Lux, a young woman he found reading at a bus stop, to be Charlotte over Christmas. With nowhere else to be, Lux agrees and the two embark on the journey South. This luminous creature left Croatia for England to study in the country of Shakespeare.

Upon arrival, the pretend-couple realises they might need some support in dealing with Sophia. She is sitting in the kitchen, heaters turned up high, wrapped in coats and scarfs. Lux gently peels the layers back, and they find Sophia angry and skinny. She has stopped eating and eyes her visitors suspiciously. Unsure what to do, Art calls his Aunt Iris. Sophia and her sister haven’t talked in ages, long fallen out over opposing ideas of how to live in this world and how to contribute to society. What unfolds are three days of quiet back and forth. Small alliances are build and broken, accusations are made and forgiveness is granted implicitly. Four people, Lux and Iris most compassionately, work through their past to explain their present and find a way forward.

This is my second Ali Smith novel – part two of her seasonal quartet – and I loved opening it and immediately recognising her work. Smith’s prose and way of seeing the world are so uniquely recognisable on the page. That is why it didn’t matter that it took me a few pages to find my way around this novel: one book in, and I trust that Smith will convince me with her rhythm. I, for one, did not mind that Winter feels less concise and more meandering than Autumn did. Following her thoughts, lingering on her characters intelligent and often funny banter, and appreciating the puns kept me charmed throughout the novel, though some allegories did feel more astute than others. This quartet is filled with cultural references, from Shakespeare to Boris Johnson’s speeches. The author’s joy in playing with language moves the novel forwards, keeping it light and breezy, even though it is born from rage at the state of the social and political landscape. It is obvious that this project has grown from the shadows of the Brexit referendum, and the political divides that have since hardened in British society. In Winter, Smith breaks those arguments down into digestible chunks attributed to the four characters inhabiting this microcosm. Sophia’s suspicions and her reactionary anger clash with Lux’s idealistic and often overly enthusiastic righteousness, yet the two women get on exquisitely, proving that it is possible to coexist beyond ideological borders and how a little compassion can lure the most hardened heart out of its hiding place. Greenham Common warrior Iris meanwhile uses humour and goodwill to force a reaction out of insecure Art, who prefers to keep opinions to his blog, away from the real world. In Winter, we have a novel that shows us warmth and light in this political season that can so often seem hopelessly dark and freezingly cold.

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