Winter

Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

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Review by Lesley McDowell

FOLLOWING on from last year’s Autumn, the second in Smith’s quartet of the seasons should be the grimmest of the four. Winter is death, as the first pages remind us. Death is everywhere; history is dead, truth is dead. Whilst a new US president is very much alive.

Smith’s politics are lightly worn, as are her intellectualism and her interest in art; here, the artist Barbara Hepworth features, though not as much as Pauline Boty did in Autumn. And she’s playful for the darkest time of the year, too, as elderly Sophia sees a disembodied head beside her, or as Sophia’s son Art pretends a girl called Lux, whom he picked up at a bus-stop, is really his long-term partner, Charlotte. Both those situations are serious (is Sophia suffering from dementia? Is Art destined to be alone now that Charlotte has left him?), with delusion and self-delusion at the heart of them.

How to bring about the light of truth then, in winter, especially if truth is dead? Sophia and her son spend Christmas together with Lux and Sophia’s estranged sister, Iris. Iris is the perpetual adolescent seeker-after-truth, always rebelling even in old age. She is, however, the one who brings Christmas cheer to a dark and empty house when Art arrives at his mother’s and finds the fridge empty of food and the lights off. It is Iris who rescues both son and sister; it is Iris who stirs in Art some precious memories of his childhood, particularly important when his own mother won’t tell him the truth about his father’s identity.

The death of truth might well be a space at the centre of things, as in Hepworth’s most celebrated sculptures; it might be in the play Cymbeline, "where everybody is pretending to be someone or something else,’" as Lux says at dinner. It might even be Britain itself, poised on the brink of a political decision that Smith clearly thinks is suicidal madness. Lux is Croatian; she came to Britain, she says, because of Cymbeline, "I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, then that’s the place I’m going…"

It’s tempting to see the first two books of Smith’s quartet as a hymn to poets, as much as to female artists. Keats gets a mention in both novels as well as Shakespeare here. Poetry might be dead, as Smith lists at the beginning, but perhaps poets can shine a light on that darkness at the heart of things right now, and bring us back to the light. Smith’s own poetic method, a collage-effect of anecdotes, memories, commentary, disembodied and full-bodied voices, revels in its power to both discombobulate and reassure. At times, the reader can’t be quite sure of where the story is, never mind where it’s going and then suddenly a way is lighted, the path is clear and on we go.

Christmas is also the time of fairy tales, and Sophia regularly targets Iris with the accusation "mythologizer". The sisters were brought up by a father who suffered PTSD after the war; on one occasion in the street, a sudden loud noise was enough for him to flatten himself on the road, ready to be attacked. Iris’ response to this upbringing was to rebel and leave home as soon as she could; Sophia’s was to embrace order and ambition, and become a wealthy businesswoman. But in her youth, Sophia met a man who gave her a glimpse of a different kind of life. And then he appeared again, later on, and the glimpse turned into a child.

It’s clear that Sophia is the real "mythologizer", not Iris. And her son has followed her in this practice – he writes up fake experiences for his nature blog, "Art in Nature", and his ex-girlfriend, the real Charlotte, posts fake tweets from his account after they split up. His Twitter following increases massively; people get on buses to follow his false recommendations, believing them to be true. Where is truth, in this Internet age, this age of mythologizing? And if winter is the season of myth, can the light of spring bring truth? We shall have to wait for volume three to find out.