In 2017, two very different writers—Karl Ove Knausgård and Ali Smith—published books around the seasons, starting with Autumn and ending with Summer. However, while Knausgård’s books are more memoirs/missives to his young daughter, Smith’s books are novels that look at “the state of the nation” (ie, the UK).
I’ve only read the second in the Ali Smith series, and I loved it. It is a book about how people react to the issues that threaten the world, either through action or through withdrawal. The central theme, however, is relationships—the things that bring people together and push them apart.
The books starts on the day before Christmas, with Sophia in her large house chatting to the disembodied head of a child floating around her. Perfectly happy to be alone in her home with the ghostly head for company, she isn’t looking forward to spending Christmas with her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte, whom she will be meeting for the first time.
Art, who lives in London, is not looking forward to going to his mother’s for Christmas either. He has just broken up with Charlotte and is dreading his mother’s questions when he shows up alone. To make matters worse, it has been a nasty breakup—Charlotte has hijacked the Twitter account of his blog, Art in Nature, and is posting ridiculous messages (which, in the way social media operates, actually serves to build his following). As Art is taking in the extent of the damage at an Internet café, he sees a young woman at a bus stop. She is clearly not waiting for a bus. Why doesn’t he just pay this homeless woman to pretend to be Charlotte?
So the young woman, Lux, walks into Art’s dysfunctional family. Art’s father died when he was a child, and he has two mothers: his own and his aunt, Iris, Sophia’s elder sister. The two women are very different: Sophia, a businesswoman of sorts, is anxious and insecure. Iris is strong and self-confident: she is an activist, was part of the anti-nuclear protests and is now helping migrants in Greece. (She reminds me of the Argentinian cartoon character, Mafalda, grown up.) The two women have not spoken to each other for years. Sophia rebelled against her elder sister’s involvement with protest movements and her scruffy friends and cut Iris out of her life.
Lux is a migrant who came to Britain because of Shakespeare. Reading Cymebeline, she thought “if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is in the end, where the balance comes back and all the losses are compensated … then that’s the place I’m going”. She lives up to her name, bringing light into dark corners of the family. She has an ability to see people—really see them. Lux has barely been in Sophia’s house for a few hours before she’s not only engineered a reconciliation of sorts between Sophia and Iris but has managed to get Sophia to eat, which until then she had refused to do.
The book deals with so many things: the migrant crisis, Brexit, protests—especially the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—social media, and of course, families and relationships. And Smith does it all with a light touch.
It feels like the characters in this book are essentially alone, looking for companionship, sometimes in spite of themselves—they come together and drift apart again. There are no resolutions at the end, but it left me with a feeling of warmth, and I wanted to know what happened to these people. This is a generous, but unsentimental, book. If you have issues with magical realism, don’t be put off by some of the weird stuff. The book is well worth the read. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.