Summer by Ali Smith

Ali Smith, Summer (Hamish Hamilton: 2020, 9780241207062)

And so Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet comes to an end. Smith’s project begun in 2016, with Autumn, and since then she has published one book a year, tackling the mess we have all been going through or witnessing over the past few years: Brexit, xenophobia, misogyny, climate change, Coronavirus and more. In these books we get the immediacy of our cultural present propped up by references to other books and art forms, which is on-brand for Ali Smith. The book is quite fragmented, though less so than its predecessors, and though it borrows from literary classics, it’s an original Smith in terms of tone and dialogue.

In Summer we meet new characters and are reunited with some from the previous seasonal novels. The main plot follows Grace and her teenage children Sacha and Robert who randomly meet Art and Charlotte from Winter and decide to accompany them on a journey to visit Daniel Gluck from Autumn. But you don’t need to have read the first three to keep up with this novel. Not much space is given to what happens in the present; it’s more about how summer and the memories it evokes and opportunities it presents change the characters in some way. Grace, formerly a creative ‘free-spirit’ who now placidly and almost absent-mindedly thinks like a fascist Brexiteer, remembers who she once was. Robert and Sacha, both idealistic in their own ways, seem to soften a little and become less rigid in their teenage world views. Art gets out of a rut. Charlotte gets to watch someone be the person she thought she was: an activist who actually takes action. There is also a moving nod to Hero from Spring, a refugee who is imprisoned in a British detention centre. But Daniel Gluck’s memories are the most poignant in the book, as he hazily recollects the time he was detained in a second world war British internment camp.

Ali Smith manages something so painful with infinite tenderness but not for a second romanticising the unimaginable tragedy of it all. This becomes all the more powerful in the context of what has been and is still being done to refugees all over the world, and though this topic is approached superficially in Spring (by far the weakest of the four novels), Summer goes deeper into the human price that is being paid for the indifference and ignorance of most of ‘the West’ today.

Image by Wilmar Santos

In this novel we find equal parts of melancholy and hope. At times the hope seems almost distasteful in the face of our reality. Sacha in particular, a 16-year-old who thinks it’s heroic to refuse to travel by car (when convenient), has a (not uncommon) naïve view of the future, which her brother, who is her polar-opposite with some truly horrific – and widespread – views, captures well: “you with your the day will come when we’ll all be wearing leaves instead of clothes vision of the world.” He knows that single-handedly changing the world “is a thing that can’t be done”. The book knows it, too, although it seems to believe in the basic ‘goodness’ and kindness of people. But looking at now and at always – there just ain’t enough of those to really make much of a dent. However, despair not – the book, and the series, drive home that it is possible to effect change on the local and individual level.

The series could have be a bit tighter: as much as I enjoy reading about films, paintings and art in general, there are a couple of descriptive passages too many in this one. The more classical allusions are done better, I think, like the Shakespeare that lends plot and structure to each of the four novels with elegance. Definitely read the seasonal quartet, but if you are not yet familiar with Ali Smith, I’d suggest starting with one of her previous six novels. They feel more focused, melodic and smoother, and perhaps there’s just not enough room in four novels to cover nearly every high-profile issue in society right now. Here it has led to a lot of telling (to the detriment of showing).  

So, is Ali Smith’s experiment, or project, a success? Of course; it’s Ali Smith. Her weird and unique voice reverberates through Summer and the other books; she is funny as always; there are some stunning nature and lyrical passages that will make you swoon but also brutal and unvarnished assessments of our reality. She calls out people by name – BoJo, Trump. She is clearly not afraid to potentially lose readers by exposing the criminal callousness of ‘the Right’. In this sense these are truly courageous and refreshing novels.

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