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Following less than a year after her 2017 novel, AUTUMN, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Ali Smith’s WINTER is the second in a projected quartet of “seasonal” novels. Like its predecessor, this book trades a conventional narrative structure for a collection of scenes that center on one small family’s celebration of a contemporary Christmas in a sprawling Cornwall mansion. What WINTER lacks in plot is more than compensated for by Smith’s characteristic wit, her keen observation of character, and her unabashed sense of delight in the pleasure of well-deployed language.

Sophia Cleves, one of the foursome of WINTER’s principal characters, lives in the aforementioned dwelling, where, as the novel opens, she’s haunted, but far from terrified, by a floating, shape-shifting head that’s become her constant companion. Sophia thinks of herself as a “once stellar international businesswoman," now retired, who had been “feeling nothing for some time,” about a world of “ordinary everyday terribleness, ordinary people just walking around on the streets of the country she’d grown up in, who looked ruined, Dickensian, like poverty ghosts from a hundred and fifty years ago.”

"What WINTER lacks in plot is more than compensated for by Smith’s characteristic wit, her keen observation of character, and her unabashed sense of delight in the pleasure of well-deployed language."

Sophia is joined in Cornwall by her only child, Art, a self-absorbed man in his mid-30s who’s in the process of losing his girlfriend, Charlotte. He’s the poorly qualified writer of a nature blog (a constant source of mockery for Charlotte). To save himself the embarrassment of showing up at his mother’s without his partner, he has recruited a heavily pierced 21-year-old Croatian woman named Lux he observes reading a takeaway menu at a London bus shelter. For £1,000, she has agreed to pass herself off as Charlotte, whom Sophia has yet to meet. The final guest is Sophia’s estranged older sister, Iris, a former environmental and anti-nuclear activist, with whom Sophia’s relationship is tension-filled on a good day.

Smith brings these highly intelligent people together in a shifting series of conversations notable for their wit and wordplay. The most distinctive character, by far, is Lux, who is wise beyond her years and appropriately bemused at the role of mediator she comes to play. In several middle-of-the-night kitchen conversations, she becomes Sophia’s confidante. Some of the sedate older woman's most interesting reminiscences surround Christmas 1977, when Iris and 15 of her friends occupied the house, highlighting the divide that separates the paths the sisters have pursued into the eighth decade of their lives.

As in all her work, Smith displays a creativity and sense of pure joy in the use of words that brings anticipation to each of her characters’ encounters. She’s unafraid to experiment, as when she presents the conversation between Art and Lux at the time of their Christmas Eve departure for Cornwall with eight paragraphs of Art’s dialogue disconnected from nine of Lux’s in reply to each one. As awkward as it sounds, in Smith's capable hands it simply works.

Smith’s portrait of the modern world in general, and post-Brexit Britain in particular, places in which “a great many things were dead,” is no less acidic than the one she offered in AUTUMN. Sophia describes watching the news that “rolled around in its usual comforting hysteria,” while for her the internet is a “cesspit of naivety and vitriol.” And, in a novel rooted in the celebration of Christmas, Smith can’t resist a parting shot at the presidential candidate who promised that “under the Trump administration, you’ll be saying Merry Christmas again when you go shopping, believe me. Merry Christmas. They’ve been downplaying that little beautiful phrase. You’re going to be saying Merry Christmas again, folks.”

As Art thinks of it, winter is “an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.” For those of us in the parts of North America battered by too much cold and snow already in this current season of short days and long nights, it seems spring can’t come too soon. In the meantime, there’s Ali Smith’s refreshing novel to help see us through, while it engenders that same feeling of anticipation about the next book in this vibrant series.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 12, 2018

by Ali Smith

  • Publication Date: November 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1101969954
  • ISBN-13: 9781101969953