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Beware the hurtling head

Dwight Garner, Jan 20 2018, 22:54 IST

Ali Smith's new novel begins with the words 'God was dead' and pivots to a scene in which a disembodied head hurls itself down a long hallway and shatters several priceless 18th-century figurines. A woman gets the head out of her house, thank god. But when it taps at the window, a sprig of holly in its teeth, she allows it back in. For the first and not the last time you think, 'there's nowt so queer as folk'.

Smith has conjured a kind of dream England in Winter, the second novel in a projected seasonal cycle that began with Autumn (2017), a book I adore. Often it's England as a bad dream.

Winter is an insubordinate folk tale, with echoes of the fiction of Iris Murdoch and Angela Carter, which plays out against a world gone wrong. Winter is no longer winter but a lukewarm wheeze. Brexit and Donald Trump have doused a rag with formaldehyde and placed it over the face of comity. Boris Johnson is compared to Samuel Johnson and found€ wanting.

This novel is set largely around Christmastime, but don't arrive expecting a mug of cider and a turkey leg. In a sort of metafictional aside, Smith warns us this will not be a "classic sort of story, perfectly honed and comforting, about how sombre yet bright the major-symphony of winter is and how beautiful everything looks under a high frost." She intends to keep us off balance, to spike the cider with absinthe, to kiss the wrong mouths. She intends to send a chill up your shanks and she succeeds, jubilantly. If I'd rank Winter a notch below Autumn in terms of its cohesion and pure witchy cerebral power, there are few writers on the world stage who are producing fiction this offbeat and alluring.

Like a symphony after a hiatus, Winter is slow to tune up. There are shrieks and squawks. There are dream sequences and bits left hanging. What eventually develops is this: Smith gathers four characters in a big rambling house in Cornwall and lets them have at each other.

One of these characters is Sophia Cleves, now elderly and alone, unhappy and sometimes cruel. Sophia made a fortune designing coats; the house is hers. Her son, Art, is a hapless nature blogger and pointless pseud. He was supposed to arrive with Charlotte, his girlfriend. But Charlotte now deplores him and has taken over his Twitter account, tweeting weird nonsense that baffles his followers.

Instead of bringing Charlotte, Art arrives with a 21-year-old Croatian girl he's recently met. Her name is Lux. Art pays Lux to pretend to be Charlotte. The final character is Iris, Sophia's estranged sister. Iris is a lifelong rabble-rouser; politically she has moved from barricade to barricade. She tangles with Sophia, who gets her opinions from the right-wing tabloids.

Winter is not a sequel to Autumn, nor the same boat painted a different colour. Yet the novels share themes and strategies. Both jump around in time to display earlier drafts of Smith's characters' personalities. Both feature brainy female academics (Lux studied literature before she had to drop out of college) or would-be academics whose lives, as yet, have not worked out as planned. Both feature extended and sympathetic give and take between young and quite old people. In each, Smith finds a way to consider the work of a lesser-known English female artist. In Autumn it was painter Pauline Boty; here it is artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

Finally, each of these books has an elastic structure, one that allows Smith the freedom to write as if improvising a bedtime story. The combination of dreaminess and acuity is what gives these books their tang. I've never seen one of Smith's plays, of which she has written several. But I'd like to. Her dialogue is a series of pine cones flung at rosy cheeks. Her characters take aim with disastrous candour. Here's a snippet of Sophia and Iris's talk, as overheard by Art:

"Selfish. (His mother.) Sophist. (His aunt.) Solipsist. (His mother.) Swotty little show-off. (His aunt.) I know what you did with your life. (His mother.) I know what you did with my life too. (His aunt.)"

Not long after this, Art, perhaps after drinking a jeroboam of eggnog, is reported to be shouting about landscaping and then "his head hit the table with a thud." This is Pinter by way of Annie Baker.

Smith does not wear her politics as lightly in Winter as she did in Autumn. There is perhaps one speech too many about how we are all in this world together. This novel takes more patience than did Autumn; it's slower to rake its themes into a coherent pile. My advice: read it anyway.

There's a moment around its midpoint when Lux explains why she came to England to study. It's because of Cymbeline, the Shakespeare play. She declares, in one greedy sentence:

"I read it and I thought, if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that's the place on earth he comes from, that's the place that made him, then that's the place I'm going, I'll go there, I'll live there."

I read Winter and thought something similar: yes, I could build an igloo here. All the same, I'll be looking forward to Smith's spring thaw.

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