In the second part of her Seasonal Quartet, which began last year with Autumn, Smith brings all these winters into relationships that are astonishingly fertile and free. She calls up old stories and renews them, she finds life stubbornly shining in the evergreens. She looks out over a contemporary landscape of violent exclusion, lies, suffering (the book has been written and published so quickly that this summer’s tragedies are among its solsticial dark points), and fashions a novel which, in its very inclusiveness, associative joy and unrestricted movement, proposes other kinds of vision... Little is resolved at the end, but the novel works through correspondences that jump across bounds and make accord between unlike things. Leaping, laughing, sad, generous and winter-wise, this is a thing of grace.
It’s super-eventful, for, as usual with Smith, chronology is disrupted and recollections crowd in. We are whisked into at least 10 previous periods (as well as some in the future). Smith is a self-consciously aesthetic writer (literary allusions are everywhere) who also has strong political convictions — gay rights, feminism, the environment. Artiness and preachiness, though, can be an awkward mixture.
She intends to send a chill up your shanks and she succeeds, jubilantly. If I’d rank “Winter” a notch below “Autumn” in terms of its cohesion and pure witchy cerebral power, there are few writers on the world stage who are producing fiction this offbeat and alluring. Like a symphony after a hiatus, “Winter” is slow to tune up... “Winter” is not a sequel to “Autumn,” nor the same boat painted a different color. Yet the novels share themes and strategies. Both jump around in time to display earlier drafts of Smith’s characters’ personalities... Finally, each of these books has an elastic structure, one that allows Smith the freedom to write as if improvising a bedtime story. The combination of dreaminess and acuity is what gives these books their tang. This novel takes more patience than did “Autumn”; it’s slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: Read it anyway... I read “Winter” and thought something similar: Yes, I could build an igloo here. All the same, I’ll be looking forward to Smith’s spring thaw.
In some ways this is classic Smithery... There is her signature wordplay: often words are broken like conker-shells to reveal double-meanings – ahead becomes a head, “I’m nobody’s child” becomes “I’m no body’s child”... This series of books have always been cuspy, if I can coin that word. The fact that Grenfell Tower, the Syrian refugee crisis, Libya and beyond, and, of course, the Groper-in-Chief, Trump, are mentioned is not coincidental. But the genuine politics is the deep politics here... here are no resolutions here, no bows on the package as it were. It ends as sadly as it begins, with a glimmer of hope, but no consolation... But Smith’s intense look at her work is splendid: fierce, ambiguous and unsettling. It does not seem shoehorned in. Winter may be more raggedy than Autumn but its throwaway glories more than compensate... Winter is a novel in which the cold also reveals clarity... But the end result is a book that makes one think, and thinky books are rare as hen’s teeth these days.
These novels are a deliberate publishing experiment, to see how close to publication the author can capture current events; inevitably, even at a distance of months, 11th-hour references to the Grenfell fire and Trump’s reclaiming of “Merry Christmas” already seem like snapshots of the past... “Mythologiser” is one of the insults Sophia repeatedly flings at her sister, but from this author it’s high praise; Smith is engaged in an extended process of mythologising 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. There is forgiveness here, and song, and comic resolution of sorts, but the abiding image is of the tenacity of nature and light.
What would be clunky in another writer’s work is seamless in Smith’s, and integral too. As Iris attests: “Art is seeing things.” So too Smith’s prose – that trademark mischievous wit and wordplay, a joyful reminder of the most basic, elemental delights of reading – makes us see things differently... Admiring one of Hepworth’s sculptures, Sophia moves round it, gazing at it from multiple angles: “It makes you walk round it, it makes you look through it from different sides, see different things from different positions. It’s also like seeing inside and outside something at once.” This is also a brilliant description of how Smith’s novels work... Winter firmly acknowledges the power of stories... Infused with some much needed humour, happiness and hope, Winter too is it’s own graceful thing.