Continuing on in her ambitious season-inspired chronicle of our times, Ali Smith opens “Winter” with the statement “God was dead: to begin with.” She continues on ringing the death bell for everything from modern day conveniences to systems of government to states of being. These pronouncements act like a wry commentary on the uncertainty many people now feel as citizens in a precarious world despite all the apparent advancements of civilization and culture. It’s also a clever play on the opening of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and his declaration of Marley’s death as a precursor to the chilling introduction of his ghost. Just as Dickens was a fierce critic of social stratification, Ali Smith’s writing critiques the way in which society has become increasingly economically and politically divided. This new novel continues with some of the same themes as “Autumn”, but focuses on a Christmas reunion between a nature blogger named Arthur or “Art”, his mother Sophia who is a successful businesswoman and his estranged aunt Iris who is a political activist. Art also brings with him a stranger named Lux who adds an element of chaos and a uniquely different perspective.
The shadow of Brexit looms large in this story as does the alarming destructive force of that new president across the pond. References are scattered throughout to specific recent true events from a Tory MP literally barking at a female MP in the House of Commons to the Grenfell Tower tragedy to Trump telling boy scouts they’ll be able to say Merry Christmas (instead of Happy Holidays) again. She even makes a sly dig at the buffoonish conservative ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson. These accounts from the news are all examples of political forces flaunting their power and brazenly asserting their arrogant dominance over women, the working class and non-Christians. Smith shows the way these instances filter into the consciousness of her characters influencing both their perspectives and the language of their dialogue. Sophia and Iris are polar opposites in their ideological points of view and frequently bicker. The character of Art is a common point between them and fascinatingly the two women even disagree over events concerning his youth. This isn’t only a novel about the present, but it frequently circles back to the past alighting upon connections and meaning and ideas which have been lost in the passage of time.
Smith’s writing is always imbued with a sense of humour. Her story begins like a Shakespeare-style comedy of concealed identity. Since Art is fighting with his girlfriend Charlotte and he promised his mother he’d bring her home for Christmas he hires Lux to pose as his girlfriend. This creates a series of absurd interactions and hilarious confusion. Sophia finds herself butting heads with institutions around her from banks to eye clinics with tragic-comic results. Individuals inevitably become alienated within regimental systems of dealing with people like Elisabeth's experience trying to submit a passport application in “Autumn.” As in all great comedy there is a tinge of sorrow and anger mixed in with the laughter. Out of a delightfully odd situation where Sophia is haunted by the ghost head of a child there arises a sober statement about ageing and a moving aspect about this character’s past interactions with the art of Barbara Hepworth.
The real ghost who seems to flit through this novel is Hepworth herself whose art and presence seems to permeate the story. This is sculptor whose smoothed-down natural materials frequently featured a hole through which to look through. There are a lot of elements to this story that have to do with nature and perspective. Art is the figure caught in the centre trying to reconcile his relationship with nature through writing on his blog amidst a corporate job tracking down copyright theft. Hepworth's sculptures feel like they organically rise within the narrative to insist on challenging the characters' perceptions. Later, Smith recounts the way a neglected painting by Ethel Walker was only recently identified as a rare early portrait of Barbara Hepworth as a teenager. Like a vision of the past, the woman herself resurfaces anew.
I have a particular passion for watching nature documentaries – particularly late at night when I’m struck by sleeplessness. Somehow this voyeuristic connection with the lives of animals and the physical world helps lull me into a state of abandon and unconsciousness. Something I’ve learned from these documentaries is that, although winter is a time of scarcity for many animals, it’s also a time in which predators such as wolves thrive best. Since they find it easier to prey on the elderly, young or sick, it makes killing easier at this time of year. Therefore, winter is a time that requires a heightened level of vigilance and care. Ali Smith’s “Winter” is a heart warming encouragement to come together, to question, to watch out for each other in these cold times when carnivorous powers seek to consume and discard those that are most vulnerable. It’s a reminder to give ourselves time in a fast-paced world where we never feel like we have enough time: “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.” It’s also a reminder that the spectre of nature is ever present and will regenerate to crawl over and crumble every wall that’s built.