REVIEW: Ali Smith's 'Winter' is a Fine, Intricate Novel of Friendship and Life

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Winter by Ali Smith

Pantheon Books, 322 pp.

By Robert Allen Papinchak

With Winter, Ali Smith is halfway through her planned seasonal quartet which began with the meditative Autumn (short listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize). Stylistically, the novels are similar, a series of fractured narratives, numerous flashbacks and flashforwards that cohere into an intricate collage peppered with Smith’s trademark puns and wordplay. Winter is not a sequel to Autumn but they share subjects and themes, including a discriminating observation of art, family, and politics.

In Autumn, Smith’s free-form technique is used effectively to chronicle the lifelong friendship between a 32-year-old university lecturer in art history and her 101-year-old neighbor who has an interest in pop artist Pauline Boty. Along the way, Smith explores the topics of painting, aging, love, and acquired affection.

Here, in Winter, Barbara Hepworth’s stone sculptures, movies with Elvis Presley (“GI Blues”), Charlie Chaplin (“The Great Dictator”), and Elizabeth Taylor (“National Velvet”), novels by Dickens, and plays by Shakespeare inform the metaphorical nature of the novel which is consumed by family machinations during a Christmas visit to a Cornwall estate.

It’s Sophia Cleves, a very successful retired businesswoman in her sixties, who owns the sixteen bedroom baronial mansion, Chei Bre (Cornish for “house of the mind”). It’s the “dead of winter,” the season characterized as “an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.” Sophia invites her twentyish-year-old son, Arthur, and his girlfriend, Charlotte, for dinner and an overnight stay to celebrate the holiday. The only problem is that, unbeknownst to Sophia, Arthur and Charlotte are estranged and he has hired a 21-year-old Croatian, Lux, to pose as his girlfriend for $1000.

Sophia is also dealing with a “nearly three decades” long estrangement from her older sister, Iris, a “radical activist” and “hopeless mythologizer.” When Arthur and Lux conspire to invite Iris to the family gathering, the “doors of reminiscence” creak, squeak, open and shut in a series of calamitous clashes of class, culture, and recriminations which culminate in a series of bombshell revelations of family secrets.

The novel opens with a surrealistic episode in which Sophia is followed by the disembodied head of a child. This head trails her throughout the novel until it morphs into a stone that echoes the hollowed out piece of a Hepworth carving. As a Hepworth sculpture “makes you walk round it, makes you look through it from different sides, see different things from different positions,” Smith’s style makes the reader do the same with the novel, as if “[i]t’s also like seeing inside and outside something at once.”

Dickens and Shakespeare imprint the novel in the same way. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol presents “an old song about a lost child traveling in the snow,” which engages the group in an examination of their own wintry peregrinations.

But it’s Shakespeare’s Cymbeline that carries even more import for the novel. The play has made a significant impression on Lux and might as well stand as a summary to the disheveled plot of Winter. She sees it as a “tangled-up messed up farce of a mess.” It’s as though “the people in the play are living in the same world but separately from each other…[w]here everybody is pretending to be someone or something else…And you can’t see for the life of you how any of it will resolve in the end [but] the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated.” Sophia, on the other hand, perceives it as “a play about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning.” Arthur says it’s the “one about poison, mess, bitterness, [and] the balance coming back.”

These are stark descriptions of a degraded world -- and, by inference, of the characters and events in Smith's engrossing tale.  By the time Winter finishes with the family Cleves, the anxious, breathless reader can only hope that like Shelley’s “wild, west” wind, which blows in as a harbinger of “spring not being far behind,” Smith’s Spring will not be long in arriving.

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed a range of fiction in newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, The Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books, The Strand Magazine, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.