After experiencing Hawaii’s near-miss apocalypse with the mistaken incoming ballistic missile warning, the beginning of Ali Smith’s Winter was not as disconcerting as it might have been – her story starts with a floating head. Stranger things have happened. When the line on page 51 stared back with “…are we at the mercy of technology or is technology at the mercy of us?” – the fake alarm prompting phone alerts seemed timely.
Smith’s Winter is not easy to read. The author has created a mess of madness, with strains of Charles Dickens and Shakespeare weaving through current politics and the state of the world – but perhaps the point is that the world is a mad mess. References to the British Brexit and the American President Trump’s immigration policies somehow connect to Sophia and her family at Christmas in Cornwall.
The characters include: Sophia, an older woman living alone – except for the floating head who intermittently changes from the innocence of a child to an old man with greens growing out of its ears to a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth; her son Arthur who seems to be looking for the one opportunity to make his mark through his writing (on a blog) while he fastidiously works at a company responsible for identifying copyright infringement; Lux, Arthur’s Croatian substitute girlfriend – he picked her up at a bus stop to pose as his girlfriend when Charlotte unceremoniously dumps him before Christmas; and Iris, Sophia’s sister who in her seventies continues to demonstrate against all the ills of the world – and there are plenty to complain about.
They all meet up at Sophia’s many bedroom house in Cornwall (the floating head is already there). When Arthur and Lux find Sophia sitting in an overheated kitchen, wrapped in coats and mittens, they promptly send her to bed and send for her estranged sister Iris, who arrives with the groceries. No one really sleeps and each time the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve, Sophia relives a past experience through her memories – Scrooge without the ghosts, revealing stormy protests, funerals, and family history. When Christmas finally arrives, the family dinner is not pleasant.
Smith punctuates this stream of consciousness with asides pointedly critical of the state of the world, as it has become today:
“And now for our entertainment when we want humiliation we’ve got reality TV…and soon instead of reality TV we’ll have the President of the United States…”
“Me, me, me, Iris says, It’s all your selfish generation can ever talk about…”
When all seems so despondent and coldly brutal – the title is Winter, after all – Smith redeems the morase with some hope, but it is a long time coming. Sophia and Iris are the political polar opposites, arguing with each other without convincing the other. But, after they, the others, and perhaps the author, exhaust themselves with dire assessments of the world’s condition, they tell stories and reveal secrets. Reminiscing about the past seems to focus the present and provide some possibilities for “to-day” that will not all end miserably.
Unlike Autumn, the first in her series, this book never warms up (unless it is to signify the horrors of global warming), and it takes longer to connect to both the characters and their message. Winter is a difficult book, and the New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner says – “…it’s slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: Read it anyway…” Maybe – or perhaps wait for the Spring thaw in her next book.