I am going to be a bit too exuberant here. I read Ali Smith's novel Winter last week and I was completely blown away. I think it is brilliant. It is also thoughtful and funny and blisteringly compassionate, if blistering and compassion can be used together in a way that makes sense, but somehow, in terms of this novel, it does.
Admittedly it took me a bit to get settled in the novel, and I had my doubts over the first 50 pages or so, but then I was lured in. In the end, I I think Winter is even more compelling than Autumn, although it isn't nearly as immediately accessible. This is a novel to savor slowly, and as I read, I also saw that the discomfort one feels, especially at the beginning, is intentional. After that I began to see what Smith was doing, and I feel deeply for the book, for its beautiful prose, for Smith's amazing way of looking at things and telling a story, for the layers of humanity and metaphor and meaning, as well as the way the author can subtly and magnificently turn everything on its head and make it seem like the most natural thing in the world.
Initially it seemed to me that Winter was more deeply imbued in its seasonal theme than Autumn was but that was only on my first reading. I went back and read Autumn again, and think it fits its title perfectly, and Winter, well winter is a more difficult time for most of us. Smith actively uses winter metaphors and ideas here, more directly than in Autumn, but Autumn is no less autumnal than Winter is, in many ways, an exploration of winter. The novel is rooted in its time, and yet it is not. The author understands the way the threads of relationships, of past, present and future all intertwine and are simultaneously related and separate.
I would say that Autumn and Winter are kindred, and I am using Smiths' phrasing here. The novels are related, but not directly so. There is overlap. Two characters in Autumn reappear in Winter, although a major character in winter was but a whisk of memory in Autumn, and a major character from Autumn plays a minor role in this novel. You do not have to have read one to enjoy or understand the other. The novel deals with relationships, as did Autumn, but not just the relationship of the characters to each other, but to themselves, and it is also a skillful commentary and allegory about changing climates, in our understandings of ourselves, our relationships, in our social and sociopolitical worlds, science, art, socialization and self-absorption.
Smith explores the ways in which we are constantly evolving as the world around us also evolves, through storms and deep freezes, and eventual springs. The winter metaphor and allegory is explored, no it is almost embodied in its many forms in the text, but like winter itself, the story is not without hope. And this is where I think the novel really is brilliant. Smith uses winter as a way of exploring the human condition. This novel, its subject and its title, gives the author a way to frame and explore relationships and who we are, forming a metaphor that bridges our experiences, bringing new perspective. I used the idea earlier that the novels are kindred, picking up from this line in the novel, referring to Kepler, but as part of a deeper tale:
Kindred means family, what I'm saying is that the thought that truth and time are sort of related, family to each other.
And yet I think this also relates to what Smith is doing here, and to the reason that I am looking forward to the next novels in this series, more so now than I was even after reading Autumn. In fact I bought this book immediately upon its release, and then put off reading it after a couple of people said it was a disappointment, as if that should really matter to my ability to form my own opinion. Now however, after reading the novel, I would say that even this tendency to trust the consensus over one's own opinion is also melded into the themes of these novels. Winter is complex and musical in its structure, not a simple little ditty, but a symphony. My words cannot do it justice. I think this is a novel that will bear up to reading and rereading, which is good, because I think I will be revisiting it with each new addition to the series. Going back to that symphonic metaphor, I feel as if each of these novels is the movement in a symphony. Each stands alone, and yet I cannot think of one without referring, either backward or forward to the other. Smith is writing stand-alone novels, but which are also intimately a part of something greater, something that is revealed only in the relationship between the parts, just as the phases of our lives and our relationships seem to stand apart but are not, are all woven into a complex fabric which we, for the most part, never unravel.