Sunday, 3 March 2019

Book review: Winter

For most of the time I was reading Winter it was twenty degrees outside, so that didn't really match up.


I read the first book in Ali Smith's seasonal quartet last autumn (the book is also called Autumn) and absolutely loved it. The way she writes is so easy to read, very colloquial and generally just like someone is telling you the story without trying to make it sound super intellectual or 'fancy'. I don't know why it took me so long to get round to reading the next book, Winter, but nonetheless, it was another great feat by Smith.

The novel is set primarily over the Christmas period of a recent year (I would guess around 2016), and follows the events at a fifteen-bedroom house in Cornwall. There are four central figures in the novel, Sophia, an ageing businesswoman; Iris, her sister and humanitarian; Arthur, Sophia's son; and Lux, who Arthur is paying to pretend to be his, now ex-girlfriend, Charlotte.

The main bulk of the story is set on Christmas day, with a few segments jumping back in time to past events. Christmas seems very significant in the novel, as it provides a time of togetherness for the family who have spent a large portion of their lives apart. It's equally a time for reflection, as the individuals gaze back on past events, and begin to understand more about one and other.

There is, though subtly done, a big focus on current affairs within this book, but the way Smith presents these to her readers is not particularly bold or argumentative. There is a conversation going on throughout the book about the refugee crisis, brexit, workers' rights, and even the Cold War, which is perhaps the best depicted of all of these. Iris was a major protester throughout the Cold War and believed strongly against nuclear armament. Her sister, Sophia, thinks she is foolish for this, and finds her prioritisation of actual people over the country's readiness to fight back quite absurd.

The dynamic between the two sisters is highly reflective of the leave and remain campaigns for the EU referendum. In fact, the referendum is even sited as a difference between the two, with Iris challenging Sophia claiming to know exactly how she would have voted. There is a distinct 'us vs them' argument throughout, which is where the character of Lux comes in.

Lux is originally from Croatia, though spent a portion of her childhood also living in Canada. Having therefore been born in a country bereft by war, she creates a thought-provoking question regarding both the Syrian refugee crisis and another regarding the future of EU citizens in the UK. Lux works in a warehouse, where she also sleeps, and, despite being highly intelligent, had to drop out of university in the UK because it was too expensive. Her character, though sided clearly with Iris, provides something none of the others can, which is an EU nationality-based insight into living in a place that has become hostile to 'outsiders'. And yet, despite this struggle, she is the kindest, smartest character of all. Her story is very sad, but one that is, unfortunately, highly recognisable right now.

Arthur's main contribution to the novel involves both the online voice: how we portray our lives online. He has a blog, called 'Art in Nature', where he depicts fond, colourful imagery of nature and how it brings beauty and art into our lives. However, as he admits in the novel, basically all of his posts are based on research and his imagination, as opposed to anything he has actually seen, therefore portraying his life as colourful and beautiful when it is really just spent researching what these things would be like, online. It's interesting to consider how many of the things we see or read about online are embellished or entirely untrue. And with social media at the height of its time, this contribution to the novel struck a chord.

It reminded me that most of what I see when I scroll through Instagram is set up and not natural, and actually probably didn't bring the person posting the image the kind of joy, or sense of experience, that it would have done if they'd been thinking about anything besides getting a great picture. It seems that when Arthur turns off his phone - his ex-girlfriend is posting all sorts of madness on his accounts, which she has access to - he finally begins to see, or recognise, beautiful images. When Lux describes a print left by a pressed flower in a Shakespeare book, her description of it blows him away, and he seems to realise that perhaps it would be nicer to really see things, instead of creating an image he thinks that other people want to see.

Overall, I loved this book. Ali Smith is such a delight to read, her style so accessible and readable that I feel able to recommend her to everyone I know. The book deals with so many different themes and topics of interests - and relevant, current issues, that everyone should take more time to consider. I think the characters she has created and the way that they affected one another was truly remarkable. A joy to read.

Until next time.

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