Book review - Summer

When Ali Smith first conceived of a quartet, her idea was to write a series of novels that reflected the changing seasons and the times in which they were written. Given how swiftly books can now be printed and distributed, Smith realised she could deliver her finished copy within weeks of the publication date so that her fiction remained as topical as possible. This approach has paid off. Her first, the Booker-shortlisted Autumn, published in October 2016, focused on the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum and introduced us to Daniel Gluck, a centenarian, and Elisabeth, whom he first befriends when she is eight.

Smith’s finale, Summer, came out in August and takes in coronavirus, climate change, failing politicians, fake news and the continuing repercussions of Brexit. In her preceding novels, Smith highlighted the art of Pauline Boty, Barbara Hepworth and Tacita Dean, while in Summer she draws on the films of Italian artist Lorenza Mazzetti. Following in the tradition of Balzac and Trollope, Smith’s quartet also features a cast of interconnected characters.

Summer focuses on the Greenlaw family, who live in Brighton. Smith begins with a polemic against recent apathy: “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.” Then we meet Grace, who harks back to her acting days before she married and had children. In the summer of 1989, Grace played Hermione in a touring production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a play, she remarks, that is “all about summer really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important.” And another thought: “summer isn’t just a merry tale. . . there’s no merry tale without the darkness. . .We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon, we’ll be treated well by the world.” This light and darkness, hope and despair, and the interconnectedness of everything, run through all four novels.

Grace’s 16-year-old daughter, Sacha, is passionate about climate change and concerned about the welfare of her bullied, precocious younger brother, Robert, whose hero is another outsider, Albert Einstein: “for bucking every trend and rewriting the universal truths to make them truer.” Alongside the siblings’ summer tale is that of Daniel Gluck and his beloved sister Hannah. Daniel travels back in his memories to the Second World War when he was interned on the Isle of Wight, in what became known as the “the artists’ camp”, because the internees included Fred Uhlman and Kurt Schwitters. In one of Smith’s many tangents, we learn that during the war, Daniel’s sister worked for the French resistance helping people cross the border to safety. The idea that there will always be people who fight injustice reverberates throughout the quartet. In Spring, for example, a group of activists in Scotland help asylum seekers escape detention and reconnect with their families.

Other places of internment for the innocent revisited by Smith are the UK’s immigration removal centres, described in Spring as “a kind of underworld. . . Place of the living dead”. We are given a glimpse of an asylum seeker, whose first name translates as “Hero”, detained (in limbo) for three years while he waits for a Home Office decision. In Summer, Sacha writes to him.

Smith draws connections between art and literature, films and fiction, history and the present day. She introduces strangers and unites people, reminding us of our shared humanity. When she began her quartet she cannot have known of the turbulence – political and social – that would follow. Her fiction records our times, offers hope in the face of adversity and the reassurance that spring and summer will continue to follow winter – as long as climate change is not allowed to damage that fragile equilibrium.

Originally published in New Humanist