August 16, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
Ali Smith, ‘Summer’ (Hamish Hamilton)
In one of Ali Smith’s trademark dizzying verbal association games, an unnamed character in Summer explains that a load-bearing stone is often called a ‘summer’; at which another character, Grace, muses on why we load summer with so many expectations, much more than the other seasons. It’s framed as a time of renewal, of rest, of being a high that is meant to get us through the rest of the year. But it can also be stultifying, oppressive, languorous, never-ending. Ali Smith takes summer for all of its properties in her conclusion to the Seasonal Quartet, using both the promise and the prison of summer to reflect on our present moment.
Smith’s ability to fit her stories so close to the present moment is uncanny; it’s remarkable that she didn’t manage to squeeze the A-level fiasco in there too. With much of the book taking place in the first half of 2020, Smith is able to trace the ongoing fallout over Brexit at a point where its divisions are deeply entrenched; to trail the arrival of COVID-19 in the UK with ominous noises about people ignoring the warning signs; and to connect these strands through the ongoing precarity of immigrants in a polarised and increasingly nakedly racist country. This novel’s precocious children are Sacha – a Greta-worshipping leftie activist teen – and her brother Robert, an incel Einstein-obsessed genius who was bullied online and has now devoted himself to right-wing extremism. The brother and sister love and hate one another, push and pull, and represent the damage done to a nation by divisive rhetoric.
As always, though, the story doesn’t linger with any one character for too long. Smith freely careens from person to person as more characters enter the narrative: two activist-artist partners, once lovers now platonic, who meet Sacha and invite her, her brother and their mother Grace – a former actress struggling with her memory – to join them on a trip to Suffolk; an old man, Daniel, being cared for by a neighbour, who the couple are travelling to meet; Daniel’s past life during World War 2 in an interment camp on the Isle of Man on account of his German heritage; Daniel’s sister in wartime France, a Resistance member helping refugees flee to safety; a Vietnamese refugee being interred in 2020 Suffolk. The intersecting time lines take the nostalgic rhetoric of conservative Britain, lost in ideas of past glory, and reframe them as a continuity of racism and xenophobia, of people parted and individuals needing to find where they stand in the face of persecution.
Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale underpins the book. Partly this is in the magic of long-parted families reunited. Art, one of the activist pair, is returning half of a mother-daughter sculpture to the elderly Daniel, a piece separated in the distant past. But Robert and Sacha, who have joined Art and his partner Charlotte by happenstance, are the great-grandchildren of Daniel’s sister Hannah, who left her child with a friendly French family when she knew that her time was running short at the hands of the Nazis. No-one knows the connection, or realises it within the framework of the story, but the moment where Daniel sees Robert and recognises him as Hannah is particularly magical.
But The Winter’s Tale isn’t just about magic reunions, but about waiting. The tale returns many times, most overtly in the name of Grace (one of the least sympathetic characters) and in her experience of playing Hermione as a younger woman, going through the motions while at the same time resisting the idea that there’s anything political to explore in the text, seeing Leontes’ jealousy simply as something that descends; it’s the same attitude that characterises her lazy racism and Leave vote as an older woman. But it’s also in Charlotte’s experience of lockdown, her paralysis at seeing other scrambling to help others and not knowing what to do, retreating further into her own private isolation as if turning into a statue. It’s in Smith’s loving descriptions of nature, the flowers evoking those of Bohemia. And it’s in the violence and unthinking hatred that tears families apart irreconcilably, as well as in the deep-rooted faith that things can get better.
Poems, films, plays, novels, artworks, histories, all coincide in the dense network of allusions and reference points that constitutes Smith’s bricolage, yet the ache of loss and the hope of change pervade everything. The image of an elderly Grace searching for a church in which she had a powerful experience that she can no longer properly remember, and coming away with a photograph of a snippet of that memory that is unclear in the reproduction, is perhaps the best summary of the novel. And this loss feeds into the experience of lockdown, where the uptake of phone calls and letter-writing, especially among those learning for the first time what it means to have lost people (even if only temporarily), shows a willingness to make and hold onto connections that might just be the way to save the future. Smith doesn’t know what comes next – she’s up-to-date, not a prophet – but her allusive, eloquent, melancholy, joyful prose distills this moment into something that can now be seen afresh.