Ali Smith’s Winter embraces the elements of the season to share a story that unravels and reveals the transformative power of darkness.
To provide light, Smith brings together four characters – a family and one stranger – into a large 15-bedroom house in Cornwall for Christmas day. Sophia Cleves, a retired businesswoman, has been living alone in the house accompanied by the floating head of a child, whose warming presence becomes an abstract yet poignant ode to the innocence of Christmas. The relationship between Sophia and the dancing head also indicates the journey that will unfold between the past and the present throughout this bleak yet comforting winter.
But it is Sophia’s cold and aloof demeanour that will be exposed under the shrewd eye of her estranged sister, Iris, who is invited to the house by Sophia’s son, Art. In one of Smith’s most playful experiments, Art, who runs a blog called ‘Art in Nature’ based on entirely fictitious events, will guide us into one of the books major themes exploring the role of truth versus illusion. ‘What he longs for instead, as he sits at the food strewn table, is winter, winter itself. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining…’
Within the old walls of the Cornish house, Smith explores the communion between the inner and the outer life of her characters, creating a physical space that will hold their loves and losses, and the truth that wants to be made visible. To get to the truth, Smith has masterminded the part of Lux: a wise, honest and enigmatic young woman, who Art has invited to Christmas to play the part of his girlfriend Charlotte. But as the stranger, Lux leads the fractured family towards a gateway of revelation and renewal. And with all the clarity of a night spent in an opium den, at one point she says to Art, “For you, in that dream, the powers that be turned into the flowers that be.”
“For you, in that dream, the powers that be turned into the flowers that be”
As a life-long activist and former Greenham Common protestor, Iris is the wild and fiery spirit who carries much of the book’s political thread. By referencing the protest at Greenham Common, alongside more recent events such as the Refugee crisis and Brexit, Smith blurs a present we might like to forget in a sanctuary of half truths and misconceptions. In the harsh light of winter we see more clearly the politics that inspire fear and division amongst our communities. But Smith presents us with an alternative path in the form of nature – the source of unification, continual nourishment and hope. Iris offers a glimpse of this when she says “these days I realise I’d be quite content just to be a bit of moss in the sun and the rain and the time passing, happy to be nothing but the moss that takes hold on surfaces”.
The opposing forces that pull Smith’s characters in different directions are brought into balance through nature. Even amidst the confusion, disorder and strangeness of their lives, winter guides them towards exposure and expression of what has been hidden.
Out of the bleakness of winter rises the clarity of a new year. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is intricately woven into the narrative by Art, who chimes: ‘Cymbeline…The one about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Smith’s celebration of sensitivity, of feeling and tenderness in a cold world, reveals the ability we all have to stretch and grow towards the light. Embracing us like Shakespeare once did, with ‘a piece of tender air’.