I have been sat here for half an hour toying with how to begin this review. There are words and adjectives and phrases in my mind – luminous, lyrical, poetic, urgent, transformative – but I am struggling to think of how to cajole those into anything that begins to look like a sentence let alone a review.
Let’s start with the more prosaic elements: this is the final and wonderful conclusion to the sublime Seasonal Quartet encompassing Autumn, Winter, Spring and now Summer and all the features you have come to love are here: beautiful nature imagery, returning again to the image of common land and of fences and borders, and here the presences of swifts; contemporary issues including George Floyd’s death (which is remarkable considering the turn around of the writing and editorial process) and of course covid and lockdown; a reading experience deeply steeped in art from the Hockney wrap around cover to the Hepworth Mother and Child to the deeply Dickensian and Shakespearean references and echoes to the cinema and music; a slipperiness to time as we move between narrative to memory and back again.
Our plot revolves around the Greenlaw family – fractured but connected as Grace struggles to juggle the needs of her children, environmentalist Sacha and disaffected intellectual Robert, the father having left but only to the neighbouring house which he shares with his new partner Ashley who has stopped talking. Into their lives come Charlotte and Art, curators (is that the right word?) of the Art in Nature project and familiar to us from the previous novel Winter, who are heading towards Suffolk to visit Daniel Gluck from Autumn, now aged 104 and still being cared for by Elizabeth. Spontaneously – and somewhat incredibly – the Greenlaws decide to accompany them because Robert wants to see where Einstein lived when he was in hiding in England.
Alongside this, we explore Daniel’s memories of life in an internment camp on the Isle of Man in the 1940s and his sister, Hannah’s, life in the war – and significantly her child; and also Grace’s memories of an idyllic day in the summer in Sussex. Stir into the mixture the detention of Hero from Spring and the lockdown together of Charlotte and Iris from Winter (Art’s aunt); and meditations on the Italian film maker Lorenza Mazzetti…
But plot is not the driving force here, however. Many reviews are commenting on how poetic Smith is – which she absolutely is – but for me this novel and the entire quartet which it brings to a conclusion are more musical or like a dance. Themes and characters dance around each other, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, coming into and out of focus, tying the narrative together at a beautiful unconscious level.
We have the theme of family: parents and children, and siblings abound – and I adored the observation from Robert’s point of view (even after injuring his sister) that
One of the best things ever, to be able to make your sister laugh like that.
The separation of and reunion of family is concretised in the Hepworth sculpture Mother and Child. Isolation and imprisonment and how we manage that lack of freedom, or find other and new freedoms and ways to be together in isolation perhaps, is also a key theme. As is language and art (with a lower case a) itself – as you’d expect from Ali – from the puns that run through it (Robert’s view of his sister as environ/mental for example, the playful echoing of the return of the child stone – ein Stein in German – to Daniel alongside the quest to find Einstein, even the prank of posting the remote to Mr W. H. Alebone in Deception Island) to the connection that Sacha’s letters to Hero can forge, to the wonderful lyrical opening section
Everybody said: so?
As in so what? As in shoulder shrug, or what do you expect me to do about it? or I so don’t really give a fuck, or actually I approve of it, it’s fine by me…
When so many people voted people into power who looked them straight in the eye and lied to them: so?
When a continent burned and another melted: so?
When people in power across the world started picking off groups of people by religion, ethnicity, sexuality, intellectual or political dissent: so?
But no. True. Not everybody said it.
Not by a country mile.
The novel is at its glorious best when it is being playful and lyrical and evocative – and this is perhaps why I found Grace’s memories of her day in Suffolk so beautiful! The politics in the novel are very strong and deeply contemporary and concerned – and at times feel a little overt (are they more overt, more preachy than in the other books in the series? It feels that way to me) and perhaps a little personal in the criticism of Boris Johnson – but somehow don’t make the novel feel gimmicky or stuck in 2020 in any way. For a novel so deeply deeply contemporary, there is a timelessness about Smith’s writing and prose, accentuated by the interplay of ideas and characters between the four novels in the Quartet. These are luminous books that recognise and celebrate the presence of the past in the present.
What this novel urges me to do now is to return to Autumn, Winter and Spring and re-read them, to re-discover the characters in light of what we have learned and how they have developed. Not many novelists have such a deft, tender, profound touch.
Perhaps the best way to sum this novel up is by stealing the line from A Winter’s Tale which prefaces the novel – such a counter-intuitive Shakespearean play to wind into a novel entitled Summer, such an Ali Smith thing to do! –
O, she’s warm!Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale
This is a wonderfully warm and tender book at its heart. It portrays a world which has perhaps petrified and frozen recently, through the loss of black lives, through covid and lockdowns, through the failure of governments; but it portrays the hope that, like Hermione in A Winter’s Tale, the people and the connections we make and the art we share create a world of summery warmth.
A huge thank you to Hamish Hamilton who graciously allowed me to have a physical copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
Plot / Pace:
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Date: 6th August 2020