There’s so much I love about Ali Smith. Social insight: spot on. Political commentary: forthright. Big serious topics: fearless. Historical / cultural scope: eclectic. Emotional resonance: deep. Human observation: piercing, tender, witty. Playing with form and words: wild and delightful. Her Hotel World opens memorably with a girl falling down a lift shaft to her death and her joyful stream of consciousness as she plummets, and I have that sensation of plunging freefall whenever I read her now – wheeee……
Summer does all the things that Ali Smith does best. She is absolutely serious about serious topics: the bitter fractured UK, Brexit, refugees, racism, privatisation, government by liars and destroyers. And not just current, but right up to the minute zeitgeist (there is lockdown, and the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 – I’m reading this in July 2020). And not just zeitgeist, but timeless stuff: transience, ageing, memory, human connection, people trying to make sense of [all this]. And art history, film history, WW2 history, Einstein. To cover [all this] – and a lot more besides – without the novel feeling crammed or contrived, or the reader feeling overloaded, tells of the effortlessness of reading her.
Yet for a writer who does serious topics head on there’s such a playfulness about her writing. Partly I think from the lovely collage she creates from dialogue, text messages, film excerpts, book extracts, letters, streams of consciousness, etymology, puns, jokes, quotes, a few vivid recurring images and some beautiful turns of phrase; no boggy description or narration. It scoops you up and whirls you along at such a pace that you don’t notice that it’s 2am and you’ve read a third of the book in one go without even realising (where you = I, obviously).
The ease of reading is deceptive though. You breeze through her airy text, but then look back at what you’ve just read and think God, there was a lot in that. My first thought on finishing Summer was that I needed to go back and read it sloooowly, and the preceding volumes, because it’s so hard not to skim and enjoy the whooshy ride for its own sake, and miss the densely packed landscape that we’ve whooshed through: the links between characters and within history, motifs, symbols, patterns, the weight of the serious stuff, and her artistry in weaving together so much into such a satisfying whole.
Although Summer brings together narratives from the previous three season books, it’s probably not necessary to have read them first. There are strands that intertwine with each other and with the preceding volumes but it’s not a conclusion as such – seasons being cyclical, and endings are always beginnings after all. And it’s not a series to read for A Story, more for the sensation of being carried aloft by air currents, plunging, rising, cruising, whooshing onwards like the swifts motif: to relish the rush of the ride and the view, swooping in close then high up, scanning past, present and future, and to marvel at Ali Smith’s phenomenal creativity and beautiful humanity.
Advance reader copy supplied by NetGalley.