Book review: Summer, by Ali Smith

In a time of unprecedented chaos and uncertainty, Ali Smith reminds us there is no normal to which we will be going back, writes Stuart Kelly

Ali Smith PIC: Angelo Carconi / ANSA via AP

And so, we come full circle. But do we reach the end? Ali Smith’s extraordinary quartet of novels began with Autumn, then Winter, then Spring and we are now at Summer. Written at a kind of breakneck speed, they form a strange amalgam of story, polemic, reportage, social comedy and almost sermons. They also pose a question: are they four books, or one book divided into four?

They are united. In Summer we get characters like Daniel Gluck, senescent in Autumn, but given a backstory and redemption in Summer. Irene, nicknamed Ire, is back; and Smith certainly has a propensity for allegorical names (Art, Lux, Grace, Hero) which makes the books seem like a Mannerist ceiling-painting. They are linked through literary references: Autumn began with a riff on Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities, this time it is David Copperfield. Autumn did The Tempest, and continuing the Shakespeare theme, Winter was Cymbeline and Spring Pericles. This time, of course, it’s The Winter’s Tale for Summer. An intriguing choice, given that the frolics in the middle of the play are some of the most festive parts of Shakespeare. Interesting also that it is about how the dead come back. One of the virtues of Smith’s work is that she can write young and old characters with equal sensitivity. The novel opens with Sacha, who is a millennial with grave fears about the end of all things, and her aggravating younger brother Robert, who can’t wait for the apocalypse.

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He is enthralled to a computer game where you can torture people, and I would not be surprised if such things existed. We segue to Daniel, and the stitches begin to link, then to Irene and the pattern begins to make itself clear. The sections about internment of German-born citizens on the Isle of Man countered to the imprisonment and release (one might say flushing) of asylum seekers by SA4A, a fictional contractor in the previous books, are the most emotionally wrenching. There is another disregarded female artist; this time the film-maker Lorenza Mazzetti. So altogether it comes together. But does it end satisfactorily?

It has all Smith’s exuberance with word-play. “Thereby hangs a tale”, pondering over what the opposite of dishevelled is, the correct pronunciation of Roughton Heath, a teenage boy vacillating while watching pornography between “banal” and “anal”. These are the kind of flourishes she can almost do by rote by now. The opening is a brilliant cadenza about the use of the word “so”, and how it can be so ambiguous.

Events, dear boy, events as Harold Macmillan didn’t say. The sequence began with Brexit and has to end with Covid-19. The pandemic sidles into the narrative almost unawares, and I think we can all appreciate that concern. Smith doesn’t aim and miss: one character says “Write about that. The mighty Etonians brought low one more time and the meek revealed as the real might after all”. Or “There’s a lot of powerplay in liking and being liked. Such a powerful connection, it’s a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always the choice we’ve got”. The opening pages include this: “When so many people voted people into power who looked them straight in the eye and lied to them: so?”

The bigger question the novel poses is: what next? One thing alone is certain. There is no normal to which we will be going back.

How does it end? It ends with something like a blessing from a stranger to a stranger. It ends with a cautious optimism that we might, just might, have learned something from the past few months, of “something created with only the ash after a fire”. Scots used to have five seasons, with Hairst as both the time of harvest and of reckoning. I would very much like to see Smith’s novel of reckoning.

One tiny detail. On page 340 there is a smudged fingerprint. Is it intentional? Is it someone who is packing the books all day? I don’t know and profoundly I don’t care. That there is a tiny trace of another human being seems perfectly adequate to me.

Summer by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton, £16.99. For her Edinburgh International Book Festival event on 28 August, Ali Smith has written a new essay exploring “the festival that every book is”. Artist Sarah Wood has created a 15-minute film responding to the essay which will be shown just once: it will not be available to view again after this single live screening. The Book Festival’s online programme begins on 15 August, visit www.edbookfest.co.uk

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