Last year, my overall impression of Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn‘ was that it may not have aged terribly well. Written in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, it felt either too close or too far from current events for a ‘State of the nation’ book. I realise this might not have been what Smith intended to write, but unfortunately it seemed to be what my Brexit-battered mind wanted to read.
It could be because less has happened between now and publication of ‘Winter,’ or maybe because political inertia and stagnation seem more appropriate to this season than the changeable promise of autumn, but this second instalment of the cycle worked much better for me.
One definite thing to love about ‘Winter’ is that Smith takes advantage of the premise to rework a childhood favourite of mine to great effect. A benefit of basing any book on Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ is that ghosts, knowing humour and lapses into warm-hearted sentimentality are all indications of wit rather than confusion. In this case, the Scrooge is the wealthy, anti-social, Leave-voting Sophia. During the Christmas period she will be joined by an unconventional and unexpected family group, including a bus full of birdwatchers, following Twitter as the Magi once followed the star in the hope of a miraculous sighting. Making a slightly longer stay is her son Arthur, who tries to live up to his nickname ‘Art,’ but struggles to find any beauty in the world as he actually sees it. A proud and self-conscious nature-blogger he is reduced to inventing walks, views and their resulting epiphanies as nothing he really experiences quite reaches the mark. Oh, and as the book begins his online identity has been hijacked by an irate ex who is enraging his followers with deliberately ignorant tweets sent in protest against his lack of activism and online authenticity.
Visions, wise strangers and ageing hippies as well as great artists of the past, from Shakespeare to Barbara Hepworth, will all help this divided family come to terms with their present and their future. My only regret is leaving it till January before reading. As with Posy Simmons’ Cassandra Darke (which was my favourite ‘Christmas Carol’ update of 2018), ‘Winter’ really is a book for the festive season. It may seem fantastical in the cold light of day, but if you open your mind to the possibilities, Smith gives a glimpse of how magic can reach into the dreariest of places, indeed, how it has always been an essential component of great winter reads.