Winter is the second book in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, an ambitious undertaking of independent, intertwined books deeply engaged with nature and the seasons. The quartet is also a response to the present political moment, embodying the hurt, anomie, and strife of our world: Brexit, Trump, and the ongoing climate crisis.
Something about a seasonal quartet feels perfect for our time. We want to eat seasonally, expect it even; we care about terroir, locality, and culture in what we consume. Why not, then, read seasonally—read something with terroir, that takes the earth of our cultural climate and makes something beautiful out of it? And something to ground us in nature, to where we are and who we might become.
I hadn’t read the first book of the quartet, Autumn, when I began Winter, just shy of Christmas. But I felt moved to ground myself, in body and mind, in the feeling of the season: the sharp chill, the days descending into darkness, the pinpricks of lights in the street. It felt important, maybe even truer to Smith’s intentions, to read her with the seasons.
Ali Smith settles us into a story of ‘real people in the real world’, starting with Sophia Cleve: eagle-eyed, self-possessed, an elderly woman residing in a grand house in Cornwall. It is a post-Trump, post-Brexit Christmas eve, and Sophia is having an interaction with the extraordinary: a ghostly companion in the form of a polite and cheery child’s head. This startling image sets the tone for the story, where the mythic presses up against the everyday.
The setup couldn’t be more conventional: Sophia’s son, Art, is supposed to bring his girlfriend home for the holidays. But all the bourgeois desires of Christmas—a warm familial meal, introducing a girlfriend—are swept away from the start. Sophia is humbled by her newly reduced financial means, making Christmas dinner an impoverished, anxious affair. And Art is struggling with his own demons: his intensely political girlfriend, Charlotte, has finally lashed out at Art’s political indifference and called their relationship off. Art’s usual refuge from reality (a lovely, lilting blog about beauty in nature) has been taken over by Charlotte in an act of digital sabotage.
Art’s instinct, revealingly, is to avoid confronting his circumstances. Instead, he hires a waifish, earnest woman—Lux, a Croatian immigrant with unsteady economic prospects—to pretend to be his girlfriend for a Christmas Day dinner. She accompanies him to Cornwall, where mother and son have a dispiriting, difficult reunion. It’s made worse when Sophia’s estranged elder sister, Iris, arrives on the doorstep as well.
The tension between them is fearsome and relentless. Iris: defiant idealist, environmental activist, Remain voter. Sophia: disdainful entrepreneur, Daily Mail reader, Leave voter. They turn towards and away from each other, enact resentments before reconciliations, while Art broods—and yearns—over his own painful history.
If the novel can feel insistently contemporary in its references (the Brexit vote, Trump’s speeches, Twitter minutiae, the Grenfell Towers collapse all make a showing), there is also the slow-rolling sense of timelessness to it. The book opens with the following epigraph, one of several: We have entered the realm of mythology. In Winter, the myth of Christmas is twinned with another one—that of protest. In a politically anxious age, the promise of protest—that unyielding idealism can shift our society—feels fragile, elusive, magical.
It’s not just winter weather that is seasonal. Ali Smith delicately binds the practice of protest to a cyclical narrative as well. As a younger woman, Iris was part of the at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. In Winter’s present, she’s turned towards the Syrian refugee crisis. Iris reminds us of a legacy of protest, one that binds the Charlottes of today (in ‘her endless hurt and fury at the world's sadnesses’) to our own great-aunts of political protest. It’s Iris’s relentless activism, revealed through Sophia’s earliest memories of her sister, that gives the novel an earnest feeling of hope. As Ali Smith observed in an interview:
All our forms of protest are crucial…What I always bear in mind is something I once heard the American artist, Martha Rosler, say: protest takes a long time. We said no to the Vietnam war every day for ten years. You have to be ready to commit, and you have to commit for the long term.’
In the contemporary landscape (Brexit, Trump, rising nationalism, the Syrian refugee crisis, the climate crisis), such trenchant optimism can feel hard to cling on to. But there is power in remembering that political protest happened in the past, too, and that it remade the world we live in now. Perhaps every generation will have its political winter, its moment of crisis—to be followed, always, by a spring. ‘One of the things about writing on very contemporary times,’ Smith says, ‘in a close interweave with the perennial passing of the seasons, is that the short view and the long view meet and remind each other about context, continuance, consequence, cycle, and above all the fact that time passes, will pass, no, more—that a time can pass. Long range optimism is built into the seasons.’
This is a political novel, but not a dogmatic one. Reading it, I instinctively sympathized with Iris over Sophia, Charlotte over Art—the fiery idealists over the apolitical and disdainful. But Sophie and Art are rendered with tremendous warmth. We see the fearful poverty of Sophia’s life: the cold neglect, the longing, the insulated conservatism. But we also see her tenderness towards the childlike apparition; we see her yearning, moving love for the sculptor Barbara Hepworth—entangled in the great love story of her life, one the novel delicately reveals to us over time. And her son, Art—sensitive, earnest, with a reverence for beauty in nature. It’s the least political characters who are the most sensitive, desperately so. We see their fears and secrets laid bare; we feel for them as they trap themselves in their delusions; we see them heal. We see Lux—beautiful, resilient, warm—interrupting a family’s alienation and replacing it with affection.
Winter is, fundamentally, a joyful book. The kind of book that is curious, luminous, and tender—beautiful before and after its politics are revealed. The novel wears its themes and political inclinations transparently. But shot through it all is a joyful story, of a family attempting a stumbling, desperately hopeful reconciliation over Christmas, with Lux cast as an earnest, enigmatic agent of change.
We see the frigid space of anomie and estrangement give way to the sincere, intimate joy of self-knowledge. We see Sophia and Art unlearn their self-delusions and engage in truth-telling, in the smallest and most liberatory of ways. Ali Smith lets her characters stumble through a fantastical world, where the realism of the world—Brexit, austerity, protest, Trump—slides up against the curiously magical, the unexplainable. And the story unfolds with a sense of shy, hopeful optimism—humanity in moments of distrust; art and beauty within the bourgeois and everyday. It lets us see the vitality that can emerge from the frost of the winter. As Art thinks, That’s what winter is—an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.