"Winter" by Ali Smith; Pantheon (336 pages, $25.95)
On one of the shortest and coldest days of 2017, I hunkered down with "Winter," second of a projected seasonal quartet through which British novelist Ali Smith is writing a classic, one mind-blowing installment at a time.
As with the series-opening "Autumn," Smith begins "Winter" by invoking Dickens: "A Tale of Two Cities" in the first novel, and "A Christmas Carol" in this one. It's a splendid choice, reflecting Smith's oft-expressed conviction that "a coming back of light was at the heart of midwinter equally as much as the waning of light."
Hence even as a novel unfolding in 2016-17 chronicles how mean the world can be in this post-Brexit Age of Trump – "Winter" describes Trump as making winter out of summer, and has even less use for Theresa May's xenophobia – Smith also commemorates protesters taking back the night in last January's worldwide Women's March.
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And even as the selfish and narrow 70-year-old Sophia Cleves folds in on herself as Christmas 2016 approaches, Smith suggests that Sophia, like Scrooge, might yet reach for her best, long-forsaken self.
First, there'll be a tour of numerous Christmases past, when a woman who "had been feeling nothing for some time now" was so sensitive that she'd cried after a Soviet dog died in space. Played hooky with older sister Iris to go see an Elvis movie. Fell madly in love with a man who taught her to love Dante and Keats, beauty and truth.
Running a business as an importer of cultural artifacts – ironic, given her anti-immigrant stance and increasingly right-wing politics – hardens Sophia's heart; "money," suggests Smith, "always does."
The spirit trying to revive her?
Lux, a young Croatian immigrant rented for a weekend in the country by Art – Sophia's spoiled and comically narcissistic 30-year-old son – to impersonate the girlfriend who just ditched him. Art and Lux travel toward Sophia's Cornwall mansion for Christmas.
Lux calls to mind Imogen, the heroine who reunites a divided Britain in Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," which influences "Winter" much as "The Tempest" informs "Autumn." The themes of reconciliation and forgiveness – and the promise of second chances – drive all of Shakespeare's late romances; these plays are clearly integral to Smith's seasonal project.
As her name suggests, Lux illuminates a darkening world in which Sophia hasn't spoken for decades to the once-idolized Iris, whose lefty politics – presented with a mix of deep affection and light satire – both embarrass and irritate the more conservative Sophia.
Might these siblings again learn to sing the same song? Might Art rise from a self-involved stupor, in which he manufactures fake news through a blog while ignoring the real world all around him? Might a world Iris describes as now belonging to Scrooge in every season find hope and light in the coldest season of all?
Engaging such questions, the stunningly original Smith again breaks every conceivable narrative rule; reflecting her longstanding affinity for Modernism, what she gives us instead is a stylistically innovative cultural bricolage that celebrates the ecstasy of artistic influence. It demands and richly rewards close attention.
Along the way, we encounter the floating head of a buried child, improbable bends in time (including a delightful journey into the future), numerous puns and joyous wordplay, and an homage to a past artist (Pauline Boty in "Autumn" and sculptor Barbara Hepworth here) – all ostensibly separate from but intimately connected to each other and the main story.
We also renew acquaintance with a wonderful character from "Autumn," which raises the question of whether one can read "Winter" without having read the first installment in Smith's series.
The answer is "yes"; "Winter" can stand on its own. But why forfeit the chance to read both of these magnificent novels? They each add to Smith's growing collection of glittering literary paving stones, along a path that's hopefully leading toward the Nobel she deserves. In the interim, we can (re)read "Winter" – and eagerly await the coming of "Spring."