Set during the coronavirus outbreak, the final novel of Smith's seasonal quartet is complete with references to Zoombombing, Black Lives Matter and Dominic Cummings’s blogby Anthony Cummins / July 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
Ali Smith’s new novel is the final volume in a four-part series conceived after she missed her publisher’s deadline for delivery of 2014’s How to be Both. That book was turned out by Hamish Hamilton in six weeks, in spite of a manuscript delivered a year late, and an unusual split structure by which the story begins either in present-day Cambridge or Renaissance Italy, depending on which of the two different (and simultaneously published) versions you happen to read.
The publisher’s quick turnaround inspired Smith to finally embark on a project she had contemplated for 20 years: a quartet of novels, each themed after a season, designed to keep pace with the state of the nation in as close to real time as the publishing process allowed. Autumn, written during the Brexit referendum, appeared four months after the vote; now, four years later, comes Summer, set during the coronavirus outbreak, complete with references to Zoombombing, Black Lives Matter and Dominic Cummings’s blog.
Chatty, allusive, punning, leaping between time frames and trains of thought, synthesising a vast amount of material from the past as well as the present, the style of the quartet could easily be described as a product of the digital age, were it not for a sense that it’s the world that has caught up with Smith rather than the other way round. Her distinctive voice was forged early in a decorated literary career that began in 1995. For an experimental writer, her appeal is broad, as became clear when How to be Both won both the Women’s Prize and the Costa Book Award, seen as more populist literary awards, as well as the Goldsmiths Prize for fiction that pushes artistic boundaries.
Summer begins in February 2020, when coronavirus was still widely treated as an overseas news story, running through to deepest lockdown in May, via the Second World War. The large cast includes teenage siblings Sacha and Robert, whose riven family (their father lives with his girlfriend next door), is connected to Daniel Gluck, a part-German centenarian first seen in Autumn. As he’s looked after by his neighbour during the pandemic, Gluck’s thoughts drift back to his internment on the Isle of Man in 1940. There’s also an elderly protester, Iris, seen in Winter, making room in her large house in Cornwall…