Rating 4 stars
Summer is the final book in Ali Smith’s ambitious Seasonal Quartet. It’s about change; the necessity of it so that things can be made new; the opportunity it offers for us to redefine ourselves in response to it; the choices we make and the consequences they hold. It’s also a drawing together of threads that travel through the other books, with returning characters and crossing themes.
Looking back over the previous volumes in the sequence, my appreciation of them has been on a downward trajectory. I’m happy that Summer is a stronger book than I found Spring to be. Autumn is still my favourite. It felt fresh and new at the time, and I still think about the beauty of its story, how clearly Smith captured the thoughts of 8-year old Elisabeth, and what a marvellous character Daniel is.
Smith wrote Autumn in the aftermath of the 2016 EU Referendum, when we were at the start of the turn towards authoritarianism and hardline Conservatism. Four years on, the status quo is a grind, compounded by the corrupt handling of the English response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The grind is reflected in both Winter and Spring, with characters increasingly infuriated by the progress towards leaving the EU, peppered with anger towards the lack of compassion shown by those in power to refugees and the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire.
Summer introduces itself at the tail end of winter through the responses of teenage siblings from a dysfunctional family to climate change and the disruptive influence of Dominic Cummings on government. Sacha and her brother Robert are the online generation. Sacha quotes quote sites in her school essays, rather than following the quote site sources (if there are any) to the original work. Aggregated data on the internet is good enough for her. She’s at that teen age where passion overrides everything and adults know nothing. She’s all about climate change and protest. Robert, meanwhile, is sketched out by Smith as an incel in development. He’s disruptive, insular, full of dispassionate hate, and is fascinated by the cynical populist manipulations of Cummings. He’s also fascinated by Albert Einstein’s visit to Cromer in Norfolk, thanks to a photograph he’s seen of Einstein on the beach. Where Sacha is overly articulate but lacking in real meaning, Robert’s communication is fractured, coherent in bursts, but full of meaning. Smith describes him as “porous understander of his time and times”.
Their parents have separated, the marriage a victim of opposite opinions on Brexit, although the mother is in denial about this, blaming the girlfriend her husband met two years later for the separation. Sacha and Robert live with their mother, who is scatty and self-important, while their father lives next door with his new girlfriend, who has suddenly turned mute in apparent response to the futility of everything. The set up reminded me of Smith’s earlier book The Accidental.
And then a trick Robert plays on Sacha introduces a source of light and emotion to Robert’s life. Smith carries forward two of the characters from Winter into Summer. Sophia’s son Arthur has been tasked by his dead mother to deliver a round, smooth stone to an old friend of hers, a singer songwriter, the focus of Autumn. Arthur’s in Brighton with Charlotte to investigate the recent effects of pollution on the beach at nearby Worthing and find Sacha in the aftermath of Robert’s trick.
It’s unclear at the first meeting between Robert and Charlotte whether this is the real Charlotte or the substitute played by Lux at the Christmas gathering portrayed in Winter. Charlotte’s effect on Robert is one of radiant light illuminating who he could be. She might be Lux, but she is also Charlotte.
From the moment Charlotte’s presence unlocks Robert’s sense of self, the book transforms. In that moment, through the nuanced layering of the conversations crossing over a table, I remembered how witty, clever and cheeky a writer Smith is. Robert has let himself into his father’s house and read the girlfriend, Ashley’s, manuscript that unpicks the loaded meanings in the language used by Boris Johnson and his government. This book within a book is Smith analysing the insidious nature of populism. It’s clever and funny, and Robert’s response to it opens other meanings from his apparent incel tendencies.
As with Spring, the detention of foreigners is a theme in Summer. Sacha begins writing to a detainee at a detention centre at a nearby airport, reflecting on how lockdown is a removal of liberty but is as nothing compared to the loss of liberty experienced by detained asylum seekers. Daniel Gluck, meanwhile, remembers the internment of foreign nationals during the Second World War, his own and that of his father. Allegedly for their own protection, carried out with cheery politeness by the local constabulary who knew them well as members of the community. Daniel’s father, Walter, German-born but British-raised, never bothered to get his naturalisation papers, thinking he didn’t need them, a foreshadowing of what happened recently to the Windrush generation. As successive Tory governments have impressed upon us, living here, working here, contributing here doesn’t make you British.
There’s also reflection on the Second World War trope. Smith has Robert boil down Ashley’s chapter on the subject as “people talk[ing] about what’s happening in World War 2 terms all the time to make people be loyal and take sides and get with the patriotic spirit.” She then contrasts this not only with the treatment by the British of non-nationals, particularly German Jews, during the conflict, but also with the actions of Daniel’s sister Hannah as a resistance worker in France. Hannah talks about the foulness of Nazism, and it’s hard not to equate it with the foulness of Trump’s politics and that of the current Tory government in the UK.
The foulness just wants one thing, more of its self. It wants self self self self nothing but self over and over again.
But Hannah also has hope for an end to the foulness. I read this part of the book while Trump’s foulness attempted to cast doubt on the US democratic process, waiting for all the votes to be counted so that Biden could irrefutably be declared President-elect.
I begin to realise that this makes it very like the blowaway moss that spreads fast across everything but can easily be kicked away because its grip is only about surface.
I was delighted to find Daniel and Elisabeth between these pages. Their long friendship has become a caring one, with Elisabeth providing a real home for Daniel and Daniel providing a balm to Elisabeth’s loneliness. I also enjoyed getting to know Daniel better, especially through his relationship with his sister. He really is one of my favourite characters in literature.
Sacha continues to write to Hero, the detainee, providing Smith with a vehicle to discuss the impact and mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic. Sacha lists the numbers in her local social sphere who have experienced symptoms but been unable to access a test to confirm it, alongside the people known to her family who have died. She refers to the loss of her father’s business and the financial impact on the family. But this isn’t a pandemic book. It’s bigger than that, as each volume has been bigger than the immediate political scenario around which Smith has built her fictional world. The pandemic is, as in real life if we pull back from the media and personal focus on it, just one in a number of things going on in the world that Smith’s characters inhabit.
And of course there’s a female artist featured in the book. This time it’s the Italian filmmaker Lorenza Mazzetti. Charlotte recommends a film by her for Ashley to watch, about two deaf mute men crossing bombed out London, trailed by a gang of children who are mocking them. Mazzetti died at the start of 2020, and this obituary provides more detail on the film. It also reveals that her uncle by marriage was a cousin of Einstein’s, and the tragedy of their aunt’s family due to their Jewish family name. Smith provides more detail on this background in the novel.
Smith draws together the threads of a four volume narrative nicely in this final volume. We learn about most of the previous central characters, their stories intersecting or glancing off each other. It’s not a neat and tidy conclusion, though. Nothing so pat as that. Smith leaves enough loose ends and things known by the reader but not the characters for Summer to feel as much of a snapshot of a moment as the previous books.