At one point in Summer, in a letter Sacha writes to a detainee, she speaks of the fact that “the modern sense of being a hero is shining a bright light on things that need to be seen”. There couldn’t be a better description of what Smith is doing. Reading the four books together is a deeply affecting experience, in which we understand the huge ambition that underlies them, the profound and compassionate intelligence that sits at their heart. Ali Smith has completed something truly remarkable in her seasonal quartet, a work that has risen to the challenges of the era that summoned it, but also a series of novels that will endure, telling future generations what it was to live in these fraught and febrile times, and how, through art, we survived.
In that versatility, Summer is an opaque but skilful work. Its plot sounds unremarkable because it has no special twists; then again, little of life seems special until you find yourself adrift. Much of this novel takes place in the gap between people’s intentions and the words they find to give them voice. Smith cares about unreliability because people get lost in their memories, and memory tends to be skewed. Even so, her quartet has stressed, not everything is subjective: there are economic and political facts, and rose-tinting any of them will damn us all. Summer, Grace believes, is “the briefest and slipperiest of the seasons, the one that won’t be held to account”. In one sense, this is a truism; in another, it’s a truth that can break a heart.
So what is to be done with hope? I can’t decide if Smith wants us to have it or not – or rather, I cannot decide if the novel she has written justifies it or not. The reconciliation the Greenlaws find is not sentimental or overdone, but is it too (and it’s strange to say this of Smith) unpolitical? All they needed was love after all. The interlinked nature of the four novels in the quartet invites rereading of the earlier ones to hunt down more connections, and I can imagine going back to the books after another five or ten years in this febrile world to find them both dated and vindicated – assuming, that is, that Sacha is wrong and there still is a world.
The novel’s hopeful message about the healing power of friendship ensures the quartet ends on a feelgood note. A number of cultural historical references throughout the story — on science, art history and philosophy — labour an implicitly political point about the interconnectedness of all people and things. The homely didacticism will be familiar to readers of the earlier books, as will the playful prose style. Smith’s relentless punning is occasionally witty but much of it feels painfully forced — neither clever nor particularly funny. Having delivered a righteous monologue on the Tory government’s handling of the pandemic, Arthur’s left-wing aunt Iris quips: “Call me Ire. My name’s the only ire left in me. I’m way beyond anger now.”