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Summer Reviews

Summer by Ali Smith


Ali Smith

4.19 out of 5

14 reviews

Imprint: Hamish Hamilton Ltd
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 6 Aug 2020
ISBN: 9780241207062

The unmissable finale to Ali Smith's dazzling literary tour de force: the Seasonal quartet concludes in 2020 with Summer

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
4 stars out of 5
Sara Collins
8 Aug 2020

"clear-sighted finale to a dazzling quartet"

The Winter’s Tale is ultimately a play about forgiveness, and when Summer opens Sacha and Grace are unable to resolve an argument about Sacha’s poorly attributed, internet-sourced attempts to quote Hannah Arendt in a school essay: “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.” No resolution to be found there, perhaps, but this novel is a remarkable and clear-sighted resolution of Smith’s project, which has felt all along as if it wants to nudge us towards hope, towards the idea that if we want to reverse the irreversible flow of history, we have to look to what the novel can do.


3 stars out of 5
11 Oct 2020

"In Smith’s novels, stories about the past always fail."

The quartet makes extraordinarily ambitious claims for art, and paints a bleak vision of a future without it. Knowledge won’t save us from a repeat of the horrors of the past; history, evidence, ‘news’ and information won’t save us. True understanding, and therefore change, can only come from the magic that is the imagination. Readers of the series will remember that we first meet Daniel Gluck through a school history project: eight-year-old Elisabeth goes next door to interview him about his memories because he’s so old. What readers may not recall is that Daniel tells her almost nothing about his past. Their relationship, almost a father-daughter bond, comes from talking about art, and playing a game describing what you can remember from pictures, not real life. (Elisabeth later becomes an art historian and we meet her again here, exhausted by her job and lonely – but Summer will restore her.)

5 stars out of 5
Simon Schama
20 Aug 2020

"wise, funny, unsentimental and exhilarating"

But the issues pondered in Summer, as in the three other books, are weighty questions of the human condition: how memory haunts an age of stress; how the times of our lives are not the same as their ostensible timeline; how families connect and disconnect; how arbitrarily barriers are fashioned to separate the free from the trapped, the native from the alien. (“Languages don’t exist singly”, one of her characters sharply and correctly observes.) And Smith has in her sights the not unimportant subject of the fate of the Earth, poisoned and mutilated, yet obstinate in its seasonal rhythms and regenerations.

3 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
19 Aug 2020

"highlights the risks and rewards of this experimental quartet"

Will these books become future classics? Possibly, though less for their literary merit and more as social documents. For there is something about the antic spirit of these novels that mimics the unruliness of our age. They proceed by sound-bites, half-funny puns and nostalgic anecdotes about Britain’s past greatness, as if to deflect from the fact there really is no plan. One can’t help wondering if this project has all been an impish game. 

5 stars out of 5
Dwight Garner
17 Aug 2020

"Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’ ends a funny, political, very up-to-date quartet"

When we get momentarily baffled in a Smith novel, we don’t, like Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, sit and scratch our hindquarters. We’re with the author, banging down bosky mental paths. She trusts that we’ll eventually notice the trail blazes on the rocks. She’s writing about the state of her own soul at the moment, and meaning can be up for grabs... Smith’s seasonal novels can be pretty on-the-nose, politically. Sometimes they veer into the saccharine. The water, here and there, turns brackish. But as with a strong river, their motion is fundamentally self-purifying.

“Summer” is a prose poem in praise of memory, forgiveness, getting the joke and seizing the moment. “Whatever age you are,” one character comments, “you still die too young.”

4 stars out of 5
15 Aug 2020

"Smith concludes her seasonal quartet with an ode to the courage of living a life of common decency"

This is an exuberantly rangy novel, which, like its counterpart in Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, is the most charged and fervent of its peers. It runs us to the brink of the frangible present, and in so doing becomes an ode to the courage of living a life of common decency, whatever the odds.

5 stars out of 5
13 Aug 2020

"Summer is a book to savour, a literary tour de force that captures the nation’s psyche exquisitely"

As with Spring, it is the human values that come to the forefront, as Smith touches on the scale of the UK’s migrant crisis. We revisit SA4A, but this time through the lens of activists and Sacha’s letters to Hero, an ‘inmate’ at one of the immigration detention centres. Smith spoke to a source in one of the UK’s real-life centres, where between two to three thousand immigrants are held at any one time, and the book, indeed the quartet, may well encourage readers to dig deeper into the injustices immigrants face.

4 stars out of 5
9 Aug 2020

"Summer is an astonishing finale to a prescient series"

And what a finale. Summer is simply astonishing. Most of us had little doubt that Smith would deliver (because, realistically, has she ever produced a sub-par book?) but Summer somehow exceeded every one of my expectations. It is fitting, in my mind anyway, to think of the Seasonal Quartet as a symphony. Summer is the final movement, all joy and celebration, a climax that has been building for some time. Themes and motifs from earlier movements appear once again, in rondo form, as the orchestra plays all at once. Then bang, whimper, it all ends. There is deathly silence followed by a manic crash of applause.

4 stars out of 5
Melissa Katsoulis
8 Aug 2020

"Ali Smith’s sequence of seasonal novels ends with aplomb"

There is so much pleasure in Summer. Smith talks about the season being overhyped, but that’s not the case for her version of it. Daniel’s story of the artists working in the prison camp would be a stunning stand-alone piece of historical fiction in itself (and will send you off to learn more about this remarkable community who etched pictures on blacked-out windows and sculpted in porridge). The typically Smithian interweaving of so many important, small voices makes this a complete universe within its two radiant Hockney-designed covers. Art, justice and nature are all given their due. There could be no more nourishing read for this summer of our discontent.

4 stars out of 5
4 Aug 2020

"The real strengths of this novel are its astounding war narratives."

Love is a pervasive presence here and it relates to another of Summer’s key themes: gifts. Smith’s distinctive style is a profound gift precisely because it is a kind of love. At once tolerant and critical, generous and exacting, this novel is in its very form an implicit defence of otherness and difference; it enacts values that need championing now as much as ever. In a challenging season, we should be thankful for an idiosyncratically Smithian Summer.

  • The ObserverBook of the Week
5 stars out of 5
Alex Preston
2 Aug 2020

"a remarkable end to an extraordinary quartet"

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.

4 stars out of 5
Cal Revely-Calder
1 Aug 2020

"the final flourish of a mazy and beautiful quartet"

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.

3 stars out of 5
Sarah Ditum
1 Aug 2020

"a remarkable experiment with timeliness in fiction"

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.

4 stars out of 5
Houman Barekat
26 Jul 2020

"The novel’s hopeful message about the healing power of friendship ensures the quartet ends on a feelgood note. "

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.”