What is to be done with hope? Ali Smith is a great artist of possibility. Think of the role chance plays in her work, from The Accidental to How to be Both’s thrillingly shuffled structure that meant you had a fifty-fifty chance of getting the contemporary narrative first or the historical one. But these are bleak times – from Smith’s perspective, anyway, which I should state here is broadly my own too.
This perspective is that of the dejected liberal for whom life in the past half-decade has been a succession of shocks punctuating the grand underlying horror of global warming, so that every time I make the mistake of thinking ‘well maybe democracy/the press/the public sphere will be OK’, I free up my brain to think about forty-degree summers instead and then I feel worse. Sometimes I wonder if the particular love I have for Smith’s post-Brexit writing has anything to do with the lofty ideals of sympathy I like to think apply to fiction or is really just the pleasure of looking in a flattering mirror.
What does it mean that she has run her seasonal quartet like this, from Autumn in 2016 to Summer now? The haunted Christmas story Winter arrived in 2017 and the grief-struck Spring in 2019. It has been a remarkable experiment with timeliness in fiction, with the first part written and published just four months after the EU referendum, to which it was a response. By way of comparison, George Eliot allowed forty years for the dust to settle between the passing of the Great Reform Act and state-of-the-nationing it in Middlemarch.
In Summer, the coronavirus pandemic has arrived. Lockdown happens too. There are allusions to Black Lives Matter, to online abuse and radicalisation, to things so recently news that it feels shocking to find them in a novel. These are first thoughts, but they’re made to last, in a way that makes you wonder how well something that feels so raw really can last.
That rawness has not diminished much since Autumn. ‘Everybody said: so?’ begins Summer. ‘And when a government shut down its own parliament because it couldn’t get the result it wanted: so? When so many people voted people into power who looked them straight in the eye and lied to them: so?’ There is Brexit-adjacent fiction, like Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land from 2017, which delves into the lives of Leave voters and the left-behinds with incisive generosity. Summer is not quite that. This is a novel with, it is fair to say, a point of view.
The story this time focuses on the Greenlaw family in Brighton: mother Grace, sixteen-year-old daughter Sacha, thirteen-year-old son Robert. Their father, Jeff, doesn’t feature directly in the story but lives next door with his new partner. This arrangement clearly chimes with Smith’s interest in borders and schisms, and the Greenlaws themselves function as a microcosm of ideological divides. Jeff voted Remain, Grace voted Leave – a set of decisions that Grace in 2020 thinks ‘split her own family as if with a cheesewire, sliced right through the everyday to a bitterness nobody knew what to do with’ (it’s hinted, if not outright said, that Grace voted the way she did out of chagrin with her ex as much as anything).
Sacha has what her mother calls an ‘apocalyptic instinct’: she is prone to waking up screaming with visions of the world on fire. She is the kind of person who buys shoes for a homeless man and worries about whether the swifts will make it back. Robert, on the other hand, is more disturbed and disturbing, a bright boy full of alarming message-board radicalism, spouting ugly ideas about the sexes and eugenics (this too ends up being explained as more psychological than political). Both are baffling to their mother.
Into the Greenlaws’ fractious life come two people we already know from earlier in the quartet, Art and Charlotte, whom we first encountered in Winter in the process of breaking up and who have now formed a new kind of partnership, co-writing a blog called Art in Nature. And at this point, it becomes apparent that the seasonal quartet should not really be thought of as four separate novels with a few common characters, but as four volumes of one novel.
This is underscored when the Greenlaws join Art and Charlotte on a road trip to visit Daniel Gluck (the old man who was the main character in Autumn), to restore to him the ‘child’ stone of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture that was in the possession of Art’s mother. It’s an illustration of Smith’s belief in the connectedness of everything. Robert, dazzled by Charlotte’s beauty and intelligence, has a realisation inspired by his fascination with Einstein: ‘He now knows a pure and inarguable thing about the infrastructure of everything. When two particles are entangled then a change to one no matter where the other particle is in the universe will mean there’s a change to the other.’
The year is brought full circle; the seasonal quartet is an experiment in time as well as timeliness. But summer is not a hopeful time of year. Spring is the time of new shoots, and we have overshot it. Grace thinks, ‘summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something.’ It’s that feeling of the year wearing itself out on long hot days, a sense of terminus made more acute by the twinge of catastrophe in every record temperature.
So what is to be done with hope? I can’t decide if Smith wants us to have it or not – or rather, I cannot decide if the novel she has written justifies it or not. The reconciliation the Greenlaws find is not sentimental or overdone, but is it too (and it’s strange to say this of Smith) unpolitical? All they needed was love after all. The interlinked nature of the four novels in the quartet invites rereading of the earlier ones to hunt down more connections, and I can imagine going back to the books after another five or ten years in this febrile world to find them both dated and vindicated – assuming, that is, that Sacha is wrong and there still is a world.