Ali Smith’s ambitious series of four consecutive books named for each season are the literary version of a high-wire act. Delivered dangerously close to publication date, they require trust from both publisher and author. Yet this allows each book to be highly topical. Autumn, the first in the quartet, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Smith’s 2014 novel How to Be Both was awarded the Baileys, Goldsmiths and Costa prizes) and hailed as the “First Great Brexit Novel.” Winter, set in the coldest season, runs to a hotter temperature, championing protest and activism. A writer feted for her virtuosity, Smith does not let her fans down here.
Winter negotiates despair and hope alike. Sophia, an ex-businesswoman, is having a nervous breakdown. Her son, Art, persuades a stranger at a London bus stop to accompany him to his mother’s 15-bedroom Cornwall home for Christmas. Swiftly joining them is Sophia’s gleefully unconventional older sister, Iris, who is an activist. Drawing influence from Shakespeare’s late romance play Cymbeline, the plot continues with mistaken identities, ambiguous parentage and lost and found characters.
Time is central to the book. Flashbacks to the 1980s nuclear protests at Greenham Common (there was “nothing left to lose. So, of course, we won,” reflects Iris of her time there) parallel the present threat posed by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
Both empathetic and angry, Winter insists on the power of protest. Greenham Common activists considered themselves “wakers of sleepers,” confides the novel’s puckish omniscient narrator.
The quartet of novels as a whole, apparently in conception for 20 years, is itself a meditation on the passing of time. It is a subject Smith has long reflected on. In her 2012 collection of essays, Artful, she described time as “a song against the clock, sometimes a happy one, sometimes not.” In an era of nuclear instability, Smith’s work shakes us awake from the page.
Winterby Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99)