Smith’s choice of names appears intentional: Arthur (art) and Lux (light) descend upon Sophia (wisdom) at her home in Cornwall. Finding her in a worryingly fragile mental state (Sophia doesn’t mention the floating head, but she’s dangerously underweight and largely nonverbal), they call Iris (meaning rainbow, a biblical symbol of hope), Sophia’s estranged sister, who rushes to help. Iris is a genial aging hippie, a dropout who spent years living in ethical-anarchic-alternative housing and campaigning for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s at Greenham Common, near where the British government was manufacturing cruise missiles. She and Sophia represent dueling extremes of boomer womanhood—campaigner versus capitalist, Remain voter versus Leave. “I bet you read that bullshit in the Daily Mail,” Iris tells her sister at one point, who has the grace to blush (she had).
What this all leads to is a Christmas dinner in the grand tradition of British soap operas, which is to say drunken, riven with disagreements, and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Art, at one point, hallucinates that a giant rock crashes through the ceiling, as mysterious, verdant, and intrusive as Sophia’s floating head, which has itself turned into a kind of stone. Are the mother and son conjuring Hepworth sculptures? Smith never tells. You could interpret Art’s rock as the extreme manifestation of the shadow hanging over the dinner table, conflict as old as the earth itself. Sophia’s bobbing head could be her maternal guilt embodied in ghostly form. Smith, meanwhile, fixates on the word head throughout the novel, considering why intolerant ideologies throughout history always go “for the head or the face,” vandalizing saints and decapitating Madonnas.
Winter is a spry, fascinating book, but not a wholly agreeable one. It’s almost too clever, too comfortable with the information it’s withholding. Sophia is crankily impenetrable, Art tends toward absurdity (his blog, Art in Nature, is written about moments in wildlife experienced via Google Maps), and Lux is a paragon, the impossibly erudite and unfailingly kind immigrant sent to remind the Cleveses of the true meaning of Christmas. “How is it okay,” she asks them, “okay in any way, to be wishing everybody peace, peace on earth, goodwill to all men, merry, happy, but just for today, or only for these few days a year?” Art replies that it “gestures to hope.” But hope is in fleeting attendance in Winter, which ends in an unusually dark mood, with President Trump addressing the Boy Scouts of America in July 2017, telling his audience they’ll be able to say “Merry Christmas” again. “In the middle of summer, it’s winter,” Smith writes. “White Christmas. God help us, every one.”
Even an off-tempo Ali Smith, though, writes leaps and bounds around anyone else. Her prose is too luminous, her humanity too irrepressible, to be clouded over. There’s hope, too, in the constant examinations of the fragility of peace and the persistence of nature (in one particularly dispiriting scene, as a Kings Cross station screen projects messages of anger and intolerance, a buddleia is growing in the roof above the old platforms, peeking through the decay). If winter is here, spring is around the corner. Even this particular moment of perpetual crisis, with its racism and ugliness, its women’s marches and barking MPs, is likely transient. “That’s what winter is,” Art thinks outside the library, right before he runs into Lux. “An exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.”