Review: Winter by Ali Smith

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As with all of Ali Smith’s work, Winter is couched in deceptively simple prose, lulling the reader into a sense that this will be a straightforward tale of loss and redemption. And while it is both of those things, it is also a charged, complex and astoundingly beautiful meditation on the way, as a society, we stake out ideological battle lines; on the relationship between art and nature, the fake and the real; on our attitudes to the environment and on our obsession with technology.

This is the second part of Smith’s seasons quartet, and as might be expected there is thematic overlap with Autumn, most saliently perhaps in the references to memory and loss. One particular character is also referenced, who may well prove to be a link throughout the series. The story pivots around the relationship between two women: Sophia, a self-made business woman in her sixties, and her older sister Iris who has been a lifelong defender of the environment and human rights. Ideologically worlds apart, the sisters have grown to despise each other’s life choices; Iris living in a commune and protesting at Greenham Common while Sophia emerges almost as the model Thatcherite business woman, building up her small empire of department stores. Sophia’s son Arthur is the casualty in this family war: a sensitive child who has been severed from his roots and left to fend for himself at a private boarding school. As an adult, he seems to live life in proxy via his blog on which he posts fictional encounters with the natural world.

The feud played out between Sophia and Iris mirrors in microcosm those social and ideological fractures which often seem insurmountable on a broader, social level and the book widens its references to take in Brexit, the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War. Yet Winter ultimately considers the potential for healing and reconciliation even in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is a book which refuses to take sides, and which foregrounds dialogue and the understanding of difference as key to a future which will rise above and beyond the hatreds of the past.

Winter is a novel which confirms Ali Smith’s status as one of the greatest living British novelists – she was recently placed first in a TLS poll of academics and authors (theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/05/). I am always grabbed by the playfulness of her writing: her love of invention combined with her unquenchable curiosity, and the way her sentences seem to feed off and into each other. Reading Winter for the first time, I felt I was only scraping at the surface of the story, and I am certain that this is a book I’ll be revisiting on more occasions in the future.

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Review – Ali Smith ‘Artful’

 

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/Artful-Ali-Smith-ebook/dp/B0098P10UM

Here’s to the place where reality and the imagination meet, whose exchange, whose dialogue, allows us not just to imagine an unreal different world but also a real different world – to match reality with possibili… (Smith, Artful, 197)

Ali Smith is one of my all time literary heroes, so it’s kind of difficult for me to be objective about her writing. I understand some of the criticisms that have been levelled at Artful – that it’s too selfconsciously, well, artful, with its puns and its wordplay and its dizzying array of references to high art and low, to cinema, painting, TV, novels, poetry, songs and anecdotes. But, to be honest, that’s what I really want in essays or lectures. I don’t want some dry as dust expostion on the role of aesthetic form. It’s precisely the kind of grasshopper style that drew me to this book in the first place: the ability to cruise from Oliver Twist to Oliver! or from Miłosz to Rilke via Sappho. These associative leaps open up genuine dialogue, not just between the reader and author, but between the texts themselves.

But it’s not just those bold associations that Smith conjures, her linguistic pyrotechnics or the intellectual fizz of Artful which makes it such a wonderful collection of studies. It’s also the way that, at the same time, the author plays with the genre itself, inserting her essays within a narrative framework. Smith fictionalises herself, as the now dead author of a series of lectures which are read by her grieving lover. This is, I believe, one of the most beautiful examples of literature as love letter since Woolf’s Orlando, a gift of startling generosity since, as the narrator later realises, “To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.” (188)

This is what is so characteristic of Smiths’ writing. “Art,” she writes, “is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter” (166). It is this perception of writing as an act of exchange, as a circuit between reader, writer and text, “the place where reality and imagination meet,” which forms the bedrock of her literary project. Because, beneath the wit and wisdom of her prose lies compassion and warmth, an empathy which, she explains, is ‘art’s part-exchange…its inclusivity, at once a kindness, a going beyond the self.’ (178)

Review – Ali Smith – “Girl Meets Boy”

 

I  kind of discovered Ali Smith’s work by accident. I was looking for something to read, and decided to try out a few of the Man Booker shortlisters from 2014. The minute I started How To Be Both, I knew I was going to be reading more of her work.

Boy Meets Girl was as eloquently beautiful a narrative as I could have hoped, and one of the most powerful modern reworkings of ancient myth I have yet encountered. It retells Ovid’s narrative of Ianthe and Iphis, the former transformed by gods into a boy in order to marry the woman she loves. Smith cleverly relocates the story in contemporary Inverness, where two sisters – Imogen and Anthea – battle with their own identity crises.

The tale is one of transformation and the empowering potential of change. In that sense, it is a joyous, riotous and rebellious narrative, which celebrates our capacity to change ourselves, the community around us, and ultimately the world we live in. It’s also a story about the power of stories – of the way in which, in order to grasp the opportunities that change brings, we hold onto narratives as a way of bridging the gap between our former selves and our new identities. But no one says that better than Smith herself, so I’ll finish this review with a quote from Boy meets Girl:

“… it was always the stories that needed telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature too.” (160)