‘Winter’ by Ali Smith

My rating: 4 stars

The first book I read by Ali Smith, Autumn, left me with mixed feelings and not particularly eager to read more of her work. Nevertheless, various good reviews convinced me to give Winter, the second instalment in her seasonal quartet, a try. And I’m glad that I did! This novel shows how dissimilar world views can cause rifts between family members. Still, despite all differences, common old memories can make a family come together again, even if the renewal of that bond requires external help.

The narration is done mainly from the perspectives of Sophia and her son, Art. Sophia is over 60 years old and hasn’t spoken with her older politically-minded sister, Iris, in the last thirty years. Art (short for Arthur) is a nature writer for a blog who, at the beginning, acts like a selfish bastard with no empathy. The parts of the book told from Art’s point of view are more gripping at first. However, when we learn more about Sophia’s past and her personality starts being clearer, they become equally compelling.

Art had a partner, Charlotte, with whom he used to have heated political discussions. She seriously cared about what was happening around her, while Art didn’t. Throughout the book there are, in fact, various references to many current affairs: humans being replaced by machines, EU citizens in the UK not knowing what it’s going to happen to them after Brexit, refugees crossing the Mediterranean, climate change, etc.

He was supposed to take Charlotte to spend Christmas with him and his mother. So, when she leaves him after one of their disagreements, he has a problem to solve. He decides to pay a young woman, Lux, whom he meets by chance, to go with him to his mother’s house in Cornwall and pretend to be Charlotte.

The plot of the book is not particularly elaborate. It is the compelling characters that are the backbone of the novel. All of them have distinct personalities, and their speeches would be easily identifiable even if their names weren’t mentioned. The reminiscences about the past, many of them set around Christmas time, from Art’s and Sophia’s point of view are engrossing and help us understand the personalities of the characters.

Tolerance is one of the themes explored both directly and subtly throughout the novel. The characters respond to what is happening around the world in opposing ways. Sophia seems indifferent, while Iris has always got involved in protests. On one occasion Sophia ponders how there has always been intolerance in the world. Although she recognises this, she doesn’t appear to act like someone who truly wants to change that. She says not to share the feelings of her late father, whom she remembers hating foreigners, however.

“There was always a furious intolerance at work in the world no matter when or where in history, she thought, and it always went for the head or the face.”

The current world climate is prone to political satire. And Ali Smith plays with words to entertainingly achieve it.

“I’m going to tweet about it in a long scroll unrolling itself out of my mouth like in an illustration of a dandy by an eighteenth-century satirist. No, I mean like a president. I’ll do it presidentially. I mean a fake president, I’ll do it fake presidentially.”

At the beginning of the book, Sophia talks with a severed head, which evolved from being a green-blue sphere. She went to an optician when she first started seeing it off to the side of her vision. The optician said her vision was fantastic, like it had never been used. Does the green-blue sphere symbolise Earth? Has Sophia never wanted to see the world as it truly is and so it was forcing itself into her? I have many questions but no definitive answers about this particular aspect.

The characters in Winter are the true stars. It isn’t an easy book to get into, but as soon as the characters started being further developed, I didn’t want to leave their side.

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