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Summer

Review

Summer

If you’ve read the other three entries in the Seasonal Quartet that Ali Smith began in 2017, your only regret when you finish SUMMER will be that there aren’t more seasons in the year. As vibrant and warm as the time whose title it bears, the novel doesn’t sacrifice either Smith’s intellectuality or her playfulness. And though it can be fully appreciated by newcomers to the Smithian calendar who start the annual cycle here, those who have followed her through the year will delight in the subtle linkage of themes and characters from the other novels.

As with its companions, the elliptical plot of SUMMER really isn’t the point. But most of the novel’s attention is focused on the family of Grace Greenlaw, of Brighton, England, who thinks of herself as a former actress, based solely on some long-ago appearances in regional theater and a single commercial, and her children --- 16-year-old Sacha, a budding environmentalist, and 13-year-old Robert, a prickly prankster obsessed with violent video games and, among other arcana, a visit Albert Einstein made to England’s Norfolk County in 1933, shortly before he emigrated to the United States.

"Like its predecessors, SUMMER is full of both portent and mirth, angst and joy, at least of a tempered variety. Richly allusive, it will send some readers back for another visit to the volumes that preceded it and will prompt others to do the same to catch up on all the delights they’ve missed."

The Greenlaws are still struggling with their husband and father’s decision several years earlier to abandon the family to move into a house he purchases next door. He lives there with his much younger girlfriend, Ashley, who’s working on a book about lexicons in politics, and who ironically has been afflicted with a mysterious disorder that robs her of the ability to speak.

From AUTUMN, Smith resurrects the character of Daniel Gluck. At the age of 104, he’s haunted by hallucinatory memories of his internment, along with thousands of British men of German ancestry, on the Isle of Man during World War II. Those memories are the launching pad for the novel’s middle section, the account of Daniel’s sister Hannah’s flight from the Nazis across Europe, a story that will have implications for later generations of the Greenlaw family.

Among the other returnees from the earlier books are WINTER’s Art and Charlotte, a pair of nature bloggers teetering on the verge of a breakup, who meet the Greenlaws through Sacha and bring the family along with them on a visit to Daniel. There’s also a glimpse from a distance of the internment camp run by the sinister corporation known as SA4A that first appeared in that novel. Sacha writes a lengthy letter to a character nicknamed “Hero” who’s held there. The coronavirus lockdown, she observes, “is nothing compared to the unfairness of life for people who are already being treated unfairly.”

Timeless in its sensibility, SUMMER is as timely as today’s headlines, an opportunity for Smith to share her cool, frequently caustic take on current events. The coronavirus pandemic lurks in the background, an unwelcome visitor whose microbe looks like “a little world that’s been shot all over its surface by those fairground darts with tuft tails from the old-fashioned rifle ranges, or like mines in the sea in films about WW2.” No admirer of Brexit, as she’s made clear in the series’ other novels, Smith doesn’t pass on any opportunity to jab at Boris Johnson, one of the “geniuses of manipulation” in charge of the country, whose ineffectual response to the pandemic’s onset was that of a “distracted and useless government who never thought for a minute they’d end up governing anything,” and whose “only thought about state was how to dismantle it as fast as possible.”

As she did in the previous Seasonal novels, Smith also focuses on an underappreciated female artist. In this case it’s the Italian filmmaker, painter and novelist Lorenza Mazzetti, who died in January 2020 at age 92. Mazzetti was one of the pioneers of the Free Cinema movement, and Smith, describing one of her films, smoothly connects her story to both Daniel’s and Ashley’s. It’s of a piece with her larger musings, across the series, on the meaning of art. There are also references to famous figures whose lives she’s touched on in the other books, including Charlie Chaplin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Katherine Mansfield, and another bit of Shakespeare and Dickens.

Smith’s joy in punning wordplay glows as usual. Robert, after tricking Sacha into grabbing an egg timer coated with superglue, refers to this as a “bonding experience” that will enable his sister to have “time on her hands.” Precocious in an unnerving sort of way, he’s constantly taunting his “environ/mental” sister. Smith is even unafraid to poke fun at herself cleverly, at one point having a character allude to SPRING as a “Sub Woolfian” novel.

Though summer is referred to only glancingly, as was the case with the seasons in the other novels, when Smith evokes it she does so beautifully. “Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without the darkness,” Grace notes, as she reflects on what she thinks of as the “briefest and slipperiest of the seasons.” Smith evokes that season most charmingly in the story of the swifts, the tiny but powerful birds who “make summer happen,” as their arrival in England signals its start.

Like its predecessors, SUMMER is full of both portent and mirth, angst and joy, at least of a tempered variety. Richly allusive, it will send some readers back for another visit to the volumes that preceded it and will prompt others to do the same to catch up on all the delights they’ve missed.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 28, 2020

Summer
by Ali Smith

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 1101870796
  • ISBN-13: 9781101870792