Early on in the 52 week challenge I reviewed ‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith. ‘Winter’ is the second book in the four part series and it was a pleasure to return to this brilliant author to get some more of what she has to offer.
Having not only read Autumn but also seen Ali Smith read an excerpt of it at the Man Booker Prize Readings last year, I have begun to feel a sense of familiarity with Smith. Through her interview and reading, her sense of humour really came through. While reading Winter I could hear Smith’s voice. Her wry sense of humour was woven right through the book.
Winter, like Autumn before it is not so much a book where things happen but where thoughts are chewed upon. If a poem were a novel how would it look? It would look like this. Ideas floating through paragraphs. Thoughts cascading through chapters and before you know it you have traversed an entire book and are left wondering what you are doing here at the end. Perhaps you could go back and start again?!
That said, it is not all abstract ideas. There is always some kind of story to hang everything on. In this instance Smith introduces Art (short for Arthur) who is dreading taking his girlfriend to his neurotic mother Sophia’s home for Christmas. The situation is compounded by the fact that he has recently argued with his girlfriend and now doesn’t want to go alone. So he takes Lux, a girl he meets entirely by chance. And it is Lux who ends up placating and pacifying family members and steering potentially explosive situations. To add to this Christmas melee they end up calling Sophia’s long estranged sister Iris to come and stay.
There is a message here about families and coming together at Christmas. It was evident that whilst there was a lot of animosity in the various relationships, here were three people who had a genuine bond. There was real affection lurking under the argumentative facade of family life. It was touching to see Sophia and Iris reunited in their own prickly ways.
Art also came in for a bit of self realisation as the story progressed. He had a tendency to take himself a bit too seriously in the beginning which thankfully waned a little over time. Call me finickity, but I don’t have much time for characters that have too much time for themselves. They tend to monopolise situations. In real life you can just walk away from these sorts of people, but in a book you are forced to listen to their diatribes. I was glad that Smith didn’t allow him to take centre stage for too long.
Reading Winter was also one of those experiences when you say to yourself ‘well you learn something new every day’! In Autumn the focus was on pop art. This time there is discussion of the nuclear arms race, a continuation of the conversation on Brexit and some discussion of literature. At one point Lux begins to describe a Shakespearean play that sounds rather like the plot of Snow White and I, like Art, was thinking that she was about to make a fool out of herself. How wrong we both were (now who’s taking themselves too seriously!) But you can forgive us both for our misdemeanour, has anyone reading this ever heard of Cymbeline? This was the play that Lux was describing and as I happen to be the owner of a barely thumbed Compilation of all of Shakespeare’s works, I went and hoisted this book off the shelf to find the play – and there it was: Cymbeline, who’d have thunk it?! The plot sounds great by the way. I don’t know why this play isn’t more well known.
All in all I came to the end of Winter thoroughly satisfied. I felt like I’d experienced these characters’ Christmas with them. We’d mulled over things together, we had become one disjointed, dysfunctional, but loving family. I can’t help but like Smith, I can’t help but marvel at her skill and the warmth her books exude. I won’t be reviewing many series on this blog, but Ali Smith’s will be one of them so look out for ‘Spring’ later on in the year!
In the meantime, closer to hand look out for next week’s book review. It’s one you may have already read, or indeed watched. ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak will be coming your way next Monday.