Date: 19th of January 2019
Time: 11:30am – 1:30pm
Address: Unit 2
Leeds LS9 8AG
BLURB (from Amazon)
Winter. Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. And now Art’s mother is seeing things. Come to think of it, Art’s seeing things himself.
When four people, strangers and family, converge on a fifteen-bedroom house in Cornwall for Christmas, will there be enough room for everyone?
Winter. It makes things visible. Ali Smith’s shapeshifting Winter casts a warm, wise, merry and uncompromising eye over a post-truth era in a story rooted in history and memory and with a taproot deep in the evergreens, art and love.
Seasonal Quartet Series
I seem to have a strange relationship with Ali Smith books. For every one that I read and ADORE, the following seems to me to be a huge let down.
So, given that I really enjoyed Autumn and all that was said within it, I probably should have predicted a less positive response to Winter. Which meant that I was feeling a little bit of trepidation as I walked in.
But let me start at the beginning. Because this book club was – as usual – terrific fun – but also – like the book we were to discuss – mired in contemporary politics.
We got our coffee/tea/non-caffeinated beverages as per usual and sat down; warm and cosseted by the soothing strains of Fleetwood Mac, Carole King and The Who.
Outside, we noticed that there seemed to be more than the normal compliment of police cars driving by. To our initial amusement (then quiet annoyance, frustration and disillusionment), we noticed that there was a fascist march* being organised for outside the BBC Yorkshire building. This only became clear because of the heavy police presence. For every three rabble rousers…sorry protesters there seemed to be a police officer patiently tagging along.
Once these heroes of liberty had covered their faces with balaclavas, they bravely and boldly marched where they were told to, calling out that ‘they wanted their country back’ and ‘Brits before migrants’. Aww, warm and fuzzies.
In between nazi salutes, these masked marchers flew a 1960’s fascist flag alongside the Union Jack – which makes the history student in me weep – and apparently kicked off with some anti-fascist activists, leading to 6 arrests. Or a 6% arrest rate.
Naturally, our conversation then fell to Brexit. And for half an hour we put the world to rights. Like the lady in the yellow jacket, we found it difficult to muster any sympathy for PM May (while all agreeing that David Cameron remains the worst modern PM EVA).
We cursed the journalist that (we reckoned) back in 2015 wished on a broken typewriter for more exciting times, while discussing the prospect of a second referendum and the divisions that have become apparent since 2016, but which took some of us wholly by surprise.
And then, almost by accident, we started discussing the book.
This tale is clearly positioning itself along the lines of a contemporary A Christmas Carol by Dickens.
Sophie is Scrooge. Instead of a ghost, she gets a floating head/Barbara Hepworth styled rock.
Her sister Iris, demonstrates that we can choose the paths in life to take – to be Scrooge or to be Cratchett.
Art is…frankly pathetic and Lux is an unbearably insufferable know-it-all Tiny Tim, if Tiny Tim had been embroiled in a political mess rather than battling illness.
Unfortunately, for me at least; this didn’t ring true in the slightest. Sophie is never an actual archetypal character in the way that Scrooge is. Her unpleasant and arrogant behaviour renders her completely unsympathetic in the opening chapters. Also, the floating head is A FLOATING HEAD?!? There is no explanation or reason why this happens. In fact, it felt like a discarded starting point. Like she’d started writing it, but then the book took over and for some reason this nonsensical aspect was left it when it could have easily been taking out and discarded.
Her son Art is served even worse by his introduction. Within moments of ‘meeting’ him, we found him to be pathetic and weak. I know I’ve repeated myself here – PATHETIC was just the first word that leaped to our minds when we considered him. His ‘reflections’ on Charlotte made me wince and I ended up muttering ‘so call the police then’ mantra like. And that was before he decided to solicit a stranger to pretend to be his romantic partner. In fact, I think that was before his wince inducing thoughts on being a blogger.
It’s unfortunate in a book when none of the characters are relatable; especially when it’s because none of the characters appear to be believable or realistic or based on personalities to be found in the world. (DISCLAIMER – I may be a little more harsh that the rest of the book club here).
Which brings me to Lux. The not-homeless-but-poor-enough-to-elicit-instant-sympathy and super smart, but in a cute idiosyncratic way just begging for things to be explained to her. This manic pixie dream girl is just IDEALLY placed to accept a large amount of money from a stranger to pretend to be his ex because – you know, homeless (ish), pretty – EVEN with all her piercings – and nineteen.
On the positive side, the writing is beautiful. There was no issue with readability regarding this book. In fact the passage of ‘bad; writing from Art’s blog was one of the best ‘bad’ writing that I’ve read in years. When Smith is on form, she is electric.
The struggle for the majority of us was the point of reading it.
Structurally, we were astonished that an author who can craft such poignant and moving passages, created such a disjointed tale with one book clubber noting that it felt like a first draft – a steamroller of ideas and delicate concepts that required a far more deft touch than was demonstrated here. In Autumn, the balance seemed just right; however this felt like it was turned around too quickly – fewer threads with more detailed breakdowns might have worked better. Here, by the time the Grenfell Tower disaster is raised, it feels like an afterthought – just plonked it in to provide context, which was distasteful to some of us.
For example, all of use loved the way the Greenham Common scenes were drawn out. It felt like we were glimpsing the world through the eyes of the protesters and we all would have liked to have known more.
Iris as a character was far more interesting to us than the ‘mains’. She was fun. She embraced life. We enjoyed her differing reflections and memories and especially her relationship with Sophie. She made Sophie more of a person with their every interaction. A book focusing purely on these two women, flashbacks and all, would have been a delight to read. We enjoyed speculating on who had visited Sophie and tried to extract information on Iris (I think we agreed it was the secret police – taking time off from impregnating activists, then abandoning them. Ah, weren’t the 80’s just great?)
Perhaps our biggest complaint was that this book is very one-sided in tone. It absolutely will not persuade anyone of a differing view to moderate their tone, change their viewpoint or consider things from a different position. Lux’s verbosity with regards to the ‘true’ impact of Brexit will only ever read as lies to those who – like Sophie – believe the opposite. I found Lux to be the worst sort of ‘positive’ stereotype. The whole ‘from the mouth of [a] babe…’ vibe was as off putting to me as the revelation that Sophie was a leave voter and by pure coincidence losing her marbles.
Which lead us back to Brexit. As this was written to extremes, we found ourselves trying to find ways to breach the gaps. If the EU is undemocratic, then vote for a party that will meaningfully engage (not UKIIP) to make positive changes? While there were positive reasons for voting leave, the leadership of that movement is all but designed to horrify and alienate those of us who didn’t vote that way.
Like the characters, we found ourselves talking in circles, no longer capable of engaging or appealing to anyone outside of our bubble. And to what purpose? Our coffees were emptied. The streets once again clear of marching, we headed out.
Perhaps not the happiest books to read, but what a brilliant way to begin the book clubbing year 🙂
*Sorry, a far-right, yellow vest march – because heaven forfend these bastions of bravery; defenders of an un-attacked liberty call themselves by their actual political affiliation.
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