My first foray into Ali Smith’s work was with Autumn, the first published novel in the Scottish author’s Seasonal Quartet. After finishing reading it, I was not eager to pick up any other of her books, but many positive reviews of Winter convinced me to continue to read this collection of novels. It ended up being the correct decision, seeing that I subsequently enjoyed both Winter and Spring. Sadly, I cannot say the same about Summer, which I’ve recently DNFed.
One of the aims of the Seasonal Quartet is to record the times we live in. For that reason, there’s an obvious immediacy to all of the books, current affairs playing an essential role in them. As much as I enjoy books that deal with politics and social issues, they only work for me when at least the characters are attention-grabbing. And that, unfortunately, was not being the case of Summer.
Four novels for four seasons
I was left with mixed feelings after finishing reading Autumn. It is essentially a collection of fragments focusing on how 101-year-old Daniel influenced the life of the much younger Elisabeth, plus various references to current events, including the Brexit referendum, the situation of refugees, the lack of job security, and the difficulty in finding an affordable house. There’s no real plot being developed. The book mainly only comprises the characters’ thoughts and reminiscences about their lives. Reading it both bored me to death and left me in awe of how well Ali Smith can craft sentences.
Winter is much more interesting, mainly thanks to its compelling characters with noteworthy personalities. Through the perspectives of Sophie, who is over 60 years old, and her son Art, the book explores how different views about the world we live in can cause conflicts within a family. It’s the old memories that bring people together again. The reminiscences about the past of the characters help to understand them better. As in Autumn, Winter too touches on current affairs (people being replaced by machines, Brexit, climate change, the refugees crossing the Mediterranean…), but it’s the characters who take centre stage and enchant the readers.
The characters and their tribulations are also the main allure of Spring. The third novel in the Seasonal Quartet is written in the third person from the points of view of Richard, a TV and film director who is struggling emotionally, and Brittany, a detainee custody officer at an Immigrant Removal Centre. Their personalities are well portrayed and they feel realistic. Plus, the narration goes back and forward in time arousing readers curiosity. I just wish the role of Florence, an intriguing 12-year-old girl, in the story had been further explored. This is a book about the need for new beginnings and being hopeful in the face of dire situations, which also touches on Brexit, the difficulties faced by refugees, and on how complex issues are oversimplified on social media.
Summer is the last book in this series of standalone novels. I only read around 15% before deciding not to finish it. My perception of the book is, thus, only based on that limited number of pages. At first, the book is narrated in the third person from the perspectives of two teenagers, Sacha and Robert. Sacha is full of ideals and has good intentions, despite not being as perfect as she thinks she is, while her younger brother is becoming a bit of a bully and has got into trouble at school for repeating the racist, sexist and classist remarks uttered by some politicians. After deciding not to continue reading the novel, I flicked through some of the pages ahead and spotted the name Daniel Gluck, who is a character in Autumn. My curiosity was not aroused, however. I was already irredeemably annoyed by the book.
Ali Smith’s shortcomings in Summer
Interesting, fleshed out characters are one of the many attributes I look forward to finding in a book. Sacha and Robert, sadly, feel more like mere tools that Ali Smith decided to use in Summer to explore the current political situation. Their personalities are not organically developed. They are just immediately mentioned at the beginning of the book almost out of nowhere, rendering the characters mere caricatures. Plus, Robert, in particular, doesn’t feel realistic at all considering his age.
Ali Smith is relatively successful in the Seasonal Quartet, in my opinion, when the characters are the main feature of the books, as in Winter and Spring, and not the politics. I don’t want a novel to be a mere political pamphlet, not even when I agree with the ideas presented in it. The story and the characters should take centre stage.
Did you like the books in the Seasonal Quartet? Tell me in the comments!