Book review – “Winter” by Ali Smith

This was the first book I started in the new year and I am delighted to have read it in January, the deep British midwinter, when the light is scarce but the days pass by at what seems like a snail’s, or at least a hibernating creature’s pace. That seems about right to me – I can’t really understand the wave of bloggers and columnists who are currently bemoaning the slow passage of January; I don’t really want my life to flash by me! Whilst Winter is a complex and multi-layered novel, it does seem to me to be one of the dominant themes, that is, our tendency to be propelled ever faster (I’m deliberately avoiding the term ‘forward’) on to the next thing. This might mean that we fail to notice what is in front of us, the life we have and are in right now, and we are in grave danger of losing something precious as a result.

In the same way that the first part of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, the Man Booker-nominated Autumn, was a highly political book, written in 2016 and described as the first post-Brexit British novel, so the ‘winter’ of this book refers to the perilous times in which we find ourselves. For many of us, these are indeed dark times where the alienation of anything ‘other’ seems to be a movement gaining traction. Bernardine Evaristo explored similar themes in her Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other.

Winter imgIn Winter, Ali Smith examines the ideas through the dynamics of a family thrown unwillingly together at Christmas. Sophia lives alone in a large house in Cornwall. She was a successful businesswoman but, now late in life, finds herself alone, estranged from her sister, not knowing what is going on in the life of her only son in London, and navigating with despair some of the dehumanising aspects of modern life. When we meet her at the start of the book, she is communicating with what I can only describe as a hallucination of a child’s head, which floats about with her. To the reader, this seems surreal at first, but it gradually becomes merely a manifestation of Sophia’s mental state – her deep loneliness and her disconnection from normal life and society. Arthur, Sophia’s son will have similar hallucinations later in the book. Sophia goes about her Christmas Eve business in the town with sadness, recalling the once vibrant high street that is now a series of boarded-up shops, frustrated at being unable to withdraw money from her own bank account and the inability of the young man in the bank to appreciate or meet her needs as a customer – she has nostalgia for the days of the friendly bank manager.

Arthur, Sophia’s son, living in London, seems to have a similarly depressing existence. He works as a researcher for a legal firm, but has very little human contact with anyone there as all his work is done remotely. He also writes a blog, ‘Art in Nature’, but this has been sabotaged by his estranged girlfriend, Charlotte, who has also stolen his laptop, forcing him to work out of the local library, where he has to negotiate queues of others wanting to use the computers there. Arthur, or Art, is due to be spending Christmas in Cornwall with Charlotte and his mother, but Charlotte has now left him, and, unwilling to reveal this to his mother, he pays a young woman, Lux, whom he meets at a bus stop, £1000 if she will go to Cornwall with him and pretend to be Charlotte.

The third member of Sophia’s family to join the party is Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Whilst they were close growing up, they grew apart as Iris became more of an activist, involving herself at Greenham Common, living in squatting communities with artists and outsiders, going to Greece to help with the refugee crisis, all of which straight-laced and ‘proper’ Sophia despised.

Lux, the heavily pierced, highly educated non-British outsider, takes on the role of objective observer, reflector, and questioner, and becomes the catalyst for what is initially, a breaking down of the fragile family relations, which then makes way for a greater empathy, between siblings and between generations, and an opening up of previously taboo conversations. In Lux, we see how the outsider is in fact the one with the under-valued talents, with the insights which help everyone to drop their guard and open their hearts, and with the intelligence and knowledge which enables them to understand their own cultural inheritance.

There are times when I found this book challenging and disjointed – Sophia’s floating child’s head at the beginning was puzzling – but the more I read the more absorbed I became in its complex layering of themes and ideas. For one reason and another I read it quite slowly over a couple of weeks, but that was exactly the right pace because the sensation was completely in line with the long slow stretch of winter. I am looking forward to reading part three of the seasonal quartet Spring, which was published last year, and to the publication of the final novel in the series, Summer, due in July.

This is a challenging book but one which I recommend highly.

What sort of books do you like to read at this time of the year?

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New rules for life?

I dip into self-help books from time to time and have a reviewed a few on here, from Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying, which aims to improve our relationship with the things in our home, to Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert, which helped me to change my mindset about my right to be creative and to think of myself in that way. Both very powerful. Over the last few weeks I have been listening to Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet (audiobooks seems to take me much longer to get through), which I have found immensely enjoyable. I’d even go so far as to say it was inspirational. I also picked up Jordan Peterson’s much-hyped 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos although I’m afraid I found it quite turgid and didn’t get very far before I had to take it back to the library for the next person on the reserve list.

So, I originally planned for this post to be a compare and contrast between the two, but it’s going to focus more on the Haig, which, from what I read, was better anyway. Matt Haig has suffered with depression and anxiety for much of his life and it sounds as if this has at times been debilitating. Mental illness is a huge topic of conversation at the moment, rightly so, and it is very much a spectrum from occasionally feeling down or going through periods of stress and anxiety, to full-blown depression that afflicts people for years, to suicide. Matt Haig does not use this book directly to examine or discuss his own battles with depression, it’s not a memoir, but he does refer to it throughout as a way of illustrating his points.

Matt Haig’s book is more about how modern life is placing almost unbearable pressures on human beings today. He is particularly concerned about young people, and the impact of social media on their mental health. Social media forces us all into unrealistic comparisons where we will inevitably fall short. And the fact that we are constantly connected, constantly reachable and how it is so difficult to ‘switch off’ (both literally and figuratively) makes so many of us vulnerable. It is ironic that at a time when we have more ‘friends’ and followers than ever before, we seem to be more lonely than ever. This topic has been in the news again this week as new research undertaken by the BBC is revealing the extent of loneliness felt amongst young people in particular.

Notes On A Nervous Planet is, in my view, required reading, especially for young people. There are lots of people on my Christmas list who will be getting copies. I listened to it on audiobook and found Matt’s lovely, warm voice, made it particularly compelling. I will  now buy the book, however, it’s one I’d definitely like to read again.

By contrast, the little bit I read of Jordan Peterson’s left me rather cold. I think with self-help books, there are just the ones you like and the ones you don’t, and I’m afraid 12 Rules for Life probably falls into the latter category. His rules include “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping”, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t” and “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”. I’m sure there is some real wisdom in some of these more cryptic headlines, but there are a lot of words to plough through before you get to it and, sadly, it did not resonate with me. I fell asleep several evenings, just reading the (very long) Foreword! I’ll give it another go, when my turn comes around for the reservation, but I’ll not be rushing out to buy it. As a general rule, I don’t do very well with ‘Rules’ and prescriptions, particularly for something as chaotic as life.

If you have read either of these books, I’d be interested to know what you think.

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