The second book in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet is, like Autumn, a novel that is more contemplative than plotty. There is a story, a somewhat more eventful one than in Autumn, but the novel is mostly about how the characters are coping with the world as it is.
This book is set around Christmas, and everything is dead. Sophia Cleves, a retired businesswoman, lives alone, with only a vision of a disembodied child’s head for company. Her son, Art, writes a nature blog that his girlfriend, Charlotte, loathes because a lot of the content is made up and it doesn’t engage with politics. So she takes over his Twitter account, tweeting ridiculous and false observations that make him look silly. Art, in response, decides not to bring Charlotte to meet his mother at Christmas, but because he doesn’t want to talk to his mother about their possible break-up, he decides to instead pay a woman he meets at a bus stop to pretend to be Charlotte. That woman, Lux, agrees, but she proves to have a mind of her own. And then there’s Iris, Sophia’s sister. Iris is an environmental activist who Sophia has cut out of her life, yet Iris insists on making herself present.
So that’s a lot of story, but it’s surrounded by meandering observations about the state of the world and how people are to respond to it. What’s interesting is that Smith doesn’t really turn these into lectures from author to reader. They really do feel like the characters talking to each other — there’s a lot of shorthand, giving the sense that they’re building on past discussions or that the characters are still working out their own opinions. And their areas of disagreement are not precisely about politics or the environment but more about how they choose to live in the world as it is — where they each stand on the spectrum of apathy and activism.
I didn’t find the political musings here as compelling as in Autumn, but I think Autumn really stood out because of when I read it. What I did like about this was the way Smith approached the idea of isolation and community. Each of the characters is isolated from the others, so much so that a disembodied head or a total stranger seems like the most appropriate company. But Smith doesn’t turn this into a diatribe against the internet and how it breeds isolation. She’s more subtle than that. I think what’s she after is the idea that we need to be honest about where we are and how things are. It’s only when we acknowledge the winter that we can start moving toward spring.