Here we are, at the end of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet. It has been quite a journey. Did Smith know, four years ago when she began the cycle after the Brexit vote, how fruitful these years would be for a series of novels written almost contemporaneously? It is spooky. This is her first achievement, to write a draft of history that attempts to make sense of things while maintaining a sense of complexity and possibility in these years of Trump, intolerance, ever-speeding climate change, and now plague. The series is open-ended, because we don’t know where we are going.
Summer is the most contemporaneous of them all, and so most perfectly captures what Smith is doing with time, the way it speeds and slows, loops and jumps. It starts in February 2020 and ends in July – I’m reading it five weeks after it concludes. Already I have forgotten things about 2020 – anyone remember that the UK formally broke with the EU way back in February? The novel’s early scenes are full of foreboding: we all know what quickly follows the rumours of a virulent new virus.
Summer introduces us to the Greenlaw family in Brighton, Sacha (16), Robert (13) and their leave-voting mother Grace. Their remain-voting father Jeff lives next door with his girlfriend Ashley, who has recently stopped talking. Sacha is a revolutionary environmentalist of Gretha Thunberg’s ilk, while Robert is an “iron(y) man” with incel tendencies. When not being terrible to everyone, including his sister, he plays a video game called ABUSEHEAP, in which the sole purpose is to torture as many people in as creative ways as possible. But none of this can stand in Smith’s hopeful vision of humanity, and so Robert is quickly set on a better path by a fortuitous visit by strangers.
I won’t say much more about the plot, because it draws heavily on two previous novels in the cycle. Old friends are brought together, painful pasts are revealed deep in the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, and many (but not all) endings are tied up. The mysterious organisation SA4A is still building fences and detaining people. It is tremendously satisfying, even if I longed for some of the wildness of the previous instalment, Spring. The cycle will reward re-reading to uncover further connections. It is a hard thing to end something, and Smith does it with far more finesse than most.
As always, the wonderful characters and their relationships (nearly all of them familial, platonic rather than romantic) flirt with twee – how can they all be so lovely, so intelligent and eloquent, so funny? But I think that is partly what Smith is up to, she is showing us the people we could be.
Like others in the quartet, Summer’s link to its season is mostly thematic. Parts of it are set in summer, but most of those summers are in the past. Summer, then, is mainly a season of nostalgia, fitting when summers grow angrier, blacker and more threatening every year, when in the past they were something to be looked forward to.
Once again, Summer gives us a host of artists and philosophers who may be appropriate spirit guides for our times. We’ve met Shakespeare, Dickens, Charlie Chaplin and Rilke many times before in the quartet. Summer adds artist Lorenza Mazzetti, and Albert Einstein, who is Robert’s hero. I have an irrational dislike of literature that uses quantum physics as an overly literal metaphor for human life (entangled particles, the effects of space-time, wave-particle duality etc), but Summer avoids most of the pitfalls.
I think what Smith is doing is offering us ideas for being better, for healing the wounds that divide us. She gives us examples of bravery large (a woman helping people escape Nazis, those assisting detained migrants and refugees in the UK) and small, but no less significant. Art is central to this, whether it is, as one character states, “a shock that brings us back to ourselves”, or, as another replies, a way of “coming to terms with and understanding all the things we can’t say or explain or articulate.”
Above all Summer is invested in the power of words. Really, you read these books to be delighted by the words – the puns, the far-reaching connections, the witty repartee between characters who are truly invested in knowledge, beauty, truth, love. They are old, nostalgic ideas, but over four books Ali Smith has sharpened them into weapons for the future.
Gay rating: 2/5 for one significant same-sex encounter