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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1599

Author: Ali Smith (b. 1962)

Publisher: Pantheon Books (New York). 336 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Present day

Locale: Cornwall, England

Winter, the second book in award-winning novelist Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, explores post-Brexit Britain through a kaleidoscope.

Principal characters

Sophia Cleves, a middle-aged English woman and Brexit voter

Arthur, Sophia’s adult son, a nature blogger

Lux, a young Croatian girl hired to pose as Arthur’s ex-girlfriend, Charlotte

Iris, Sophia’s older sister, a lifelong left-wing activist

Winter is the second book in British author Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet about life in contemporary England, following her 2016 novel Autumn. In Winter, a middle-aged woman named Sophia Cleves is haunted by the ghostly, disembodied head of a small child. Other threads of the novel concern Sophia’s adult son, Arthur, or Art, a nature blogger; Lux, a young Croatian girl whom Art has paid to pretend to be his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte; and Iris, a lifelong left-wing activist and Sophia’s estranged older sister. The novel jumps around in time, but the story at its core concerns a Christmas gathering in which all of the characters descend on Sophia’s big, old house and attempt to make merry in the present day. Winter has very little to do with its prequel, Autumn, aside from what Dwight Garner, who reviewed both books for the New York Times, described as its “elastic” structure. Both novels explore intergenerational relationships, in particular how people who came of age in the mid-twentieth century relate to people coming of age today. They also, as Garner noted, discuss the life of a famous, yet largely forgotten, female artist. In Autumn, the main characters are moved by the work of the late Pauline Boty, a founder of the British Pop art movement, who died of cancer in her twenties in 1966. In Winter, characters come together over the work of Barbara Hepworth, a Modernist sculptor, who died in 1975. But Smith has a larger vision for the series. The books are being written in response to Brexit—the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016—a decision that Smith views as an emblem of its historical moment.

Smith, who was born and raised in Scotland, is the author of eight novels, six short-story collections, and seven plays. She has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize a handful of times. Her work is difficult to quantify. James Wood, who reviewed Winter for the New Yorker, named Muriel Spark and Virginia Woolf as her literary forebears. He even made a surprisingly strong case for comparing her to William Shakespeare. Like Woolf (and also Shakespeare), Smith delights in the rhythm of words and sentences. Her cadence as a writer, particularly in Winter, is bracingly conversational, as if she were literally making up the story in real time. The following, for instance, is how Smith introduces Sophia’s friend, the disembodied head: “It swivelled to face her as soon as she spoke to it and when it saw her, it—can something with no neck or shoulders be said to bow? it definitely dipped itself, sort of tipped forward with its eyes down respectful then up again courtly and bright, a bow, or a curtsey?” The description continues for nearly a page. It ends by comparing the head’s movements to “a slow-motion soft-focus person’s hair” in a shampoo commercial. Smith’s writing is characterized by free-flowing sentences punctuated by arresting images. Even when Smith’s writing is cerebral, it remains, pleasingly, quite breezy.

Smith’s 2014 novel How to Be Both won the Baileys Women’s Prize for...

(This entire section contains 1599 words.)

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Fiction and the Goldsmiths Prize. That book merged the fictional story of real-life, early Italian Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa (whom she imagined as a woman disguised as a man) with the story of a grieving sixteen-year-old girl named George in contemporary England. The novel is less a story with a beginning, middle, and end than it is an exuberant riff on the word “both.”Autumn and Winter are similar with respect to their titles. All of the images in Winter are bleak, inhospitable, dead. Smith invokes Charles Dickens’s wintry A Christmas Carol (1843)—the first line of Winter echoes the first line of that book: “God was dead: to begin with”—and Sophia, like Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by an apparition attempting to thaw her cold, miserly heart. If Autumn (the book as well as the season) invokes change, Winter invokes stillness. Like Sophia’s drafty, old Victorian house, or her once-successful business selling new goods that look old, Winter is frozen in time—stuck. In the book, Smith writes, in the voice of Art, “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.”Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

Art is in desperate need of some stillness. At the beginning of the novel, he has just broken up with his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte. She accuses him of not sufficiently devoting himself to solving the world’s problems; he views her activism as a means of seeking attention. In revenge, Charlotte commandeers the Twitter account for Art’s popular nature blog Art in Nature, in which Art writes about places he explores only through Google maps. He is frazzled, low, and beginning to realize that he might be a bit of a hack when he meets a young Croatian student named Lux. On a whim, he offers to pay the enigmatic woman to pretend to be Charlotte for a few days—the shame of telling his mother that the relationship is over is too much to bear. Broke, Lux agrees. Her role in the story is best described by Stephanie Merritt for the Guardian, who noted that Lux’s name “recalls St. Lucy, whose day used to coincide with the winter solstice, patron saint of light in darkness.” Lux is a stranger in the midst of a dysfunctional family with, Merritt writes, “a license to speak the truth.” Unsurprisingly, it is Lux who takes charge when the couple arrives to find Sophia alone on Christmas Eve, emaciated and mumbling. There is no food in the house. Lux forces Art to call his aunt, Sophia’s estranged sister Iris, to come help them revive her. Though the sisters have not spoken in years, Iris shows up hours later with a carload of groceries, an act of benevolence reminiscent of the bounty of Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present.

Of course, this impromptu reunion dredges up painful memories for all three family members. There is a lifetime of grievances between Sophia and Iris—not the least of which is Sophia’s jealousy over Iris’s outsized role in Art’s early life—exacerbated by Iris’s radical politics. Sophia, an unrepentant capitalist and conservative, built her business to the detriment of her relationship with her son; Iris, in Sophia’s view, pursued her ideals to the detriment of her relationship with their parents. When Art and Lux get a hold of her, the elderly woman has just returned from helping refugees sailing dangerous rubber dinghies into Greece. Like the seasons, this multigenerational conflict feels cyclical. Meanwhile, as Merritt noted, none of the causes for which Iris has fought—including ending nuclear war and preventing chemical leaks and climate destruction—have been won more than temporarily. This is part of Smith’s larger conceit and suggests a bleak kind of beauty. “Smith is engaged in an extended process of mythologizing the present state of Britain, and Winter is at its most luminously beautiful when the news fades and merges with recent and ancient history, a reminder that everything is cyclical,” Merritt wrote. © Christian Sinibaldi

Critics praised Winter, though there was some consensus that it did not quite achieve the literary heights of its prequel. Sophia Gilbert of the Atlantic described it as “almost too clever, too comfortable with the information it’s withholding,” though she added, “Even an off-tempo Ali Smith . . . writes leaps and bounds around anyone else.” Garner offered a similar opinion. “If I’d rank Winter a notch below Autumn . . . there are few writers on the world stage who are producing fiction this offbeat and alluring.” Among reviewers, Wood was the most critical of the book, writing that it “doesn’t know when to end” and “trundles along into silliness.” Still, he devoted much of his review to praise of Smith’s wordplay and use of puns. He wrote that Smith, at her best, does not pun merely to be clever but to reveal the depths of words themselves. “Expansiveness is at the heart of Smith’s work; her characters aspire to the generative power of the pun,” he wrote.

Review Sources

  • Garner, Dwight. “Ali Smith’s Seasonal Cycle Turns to a Dreamy ‘Winter.’” Review of Winter, by Ali Smith. The New York Times, 8 Jan. 2018, Accessed 21 July 2018.
  • Gilbert, Sophie. “Ali Smith Spins Modernity into Myth in Winter.” Review of Winter, by Ali Smith. TheAtlantic, 17 Jan. 2018, Accessed 21 July 2018.
  • McAlpin, Heller. “Winter Balances Dark Days with Flashes of Joy and Light.” Review of Winter, by Ali Smith. National Public Radio, 10 Jan. 2018, Accessed 21 July 2018.
  • Merritt, Stephanie. “Winter by Ali Smith Review—Luminously Beautiful.” The Guardian, 5 Nov. 2017, Accessed 21 July 2018.
  • Review of Winter, by Ali Smith. Kirkus Reviews, 13 Nov. 2017, Accessed 21 July 2018.
  • Wood, James. “The Power of the Literary Pun.” Review of Winter, by Ali Smith. The New Yorker, 29 Jan. 2018, Accessed 21 July 2018.