Ali Smith’s “Summer,” the final novel of her seasonal quartet, is a remarkable book, rich in word-play and language, witty puns and deep concern for the catastrophes facing humanity today.
She writes with passion and irony about current events from Brexit and the immigration crisis to the current pandemic, about the environment, the treatment of aliens, of injustice. “Does a life end at the death? How do we define a life? How do we come to understand what time is, what we’ll do with it, what it’ll do with us? Everybody’s life is broken somewhere.”
Art and literature, contemporary concerns and the importance of forgiveness are all part of the quartet. Miss Smith incorporates the influence of real people into her fiction, be it the pop artist Pauline Boty in “Autumn,” the first of the quartet, or the film maker Lorenza Mazzetti in “Summer.” They are not characters, but points of reference, as are Shakespeare’s plays.
Some of the characters from the earlier novels reappear in “Summer” and are incorporated into a final resolution of the four narratives, but it is not necessary to have read the earlier books; each stands alone. Although sometimes difficult to follow as the novel veers through time and space, with lengthy, beautifully written and often funny asides, “Summer” is well worth reading.
The novel opens with an allegory: an image from an English film in which “a slight man, a young man, a distracted and tentative kind of man, dapper in a hat and jacket, light on his feet but at the same time burdened … is … balanced on a very narrow brick ledge which runs round the edge of a high building, along the length of which he’s doing a joyous and frantic dance …. Everybody said: so?”
The story begins with the Greenlaw family. Grace, the mother, was an actress in her youth. Her husband, Jeffrey, has left her and moved into a house next door where he lives with his younger girlfriend, Ashley, who no longer speaks.
Teenager Sacha wants to save the world; she believes in forgiveness. She would not have said “so?” Sacha “quite likes words. She doesn’t really get to, though, at home, because [her younger brother] Robert’s meant to be the one who likes words.” She has taken to writing to an illegal immigrant named “Hero” who is detained in an Immigration Removal Centre next to the airport.
Robert is brilliant and “what [Sacha’s] mother calls intransigent, what her father calls acting like a bloody moron and what Ashley, if Ashley were to speak out loud, would call something so expletive that their father would literally have to leave her and move back home again.”
The siblings argue fiercely, enjoy jokes together. When Robert glues a glass egg timer to his sister’s hand, he texts “from now on u always have time on uyr hands.” She texts back “Thanks for the exceptional bonding experience.” They are the most delightful children since J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.
Art and Charlotte, a couple who no longer are coupling, live in his deceased mother, Sophie’s, house with Sophie’s sister, Iris, “a seasoned lefty activist.” They had found Sacha and taken her to the emergency room to have the egg timer removed from her hand, and brought her home.
Robert is enchanted: “The name CHARLOTTE lights up like a word in a neon sign. The visitor called Charlotte is lighting up this room. Robert himself feels as if he too is neon, lightning zagging though him, he is shining, … he is a source of light too because of her. No, he is light, actual light, light itself. Not just that — he is the kind of light that’s in the word delight.”
The Greenlaws accompany Art and Charlotte to visit Daniel Gluck, once a lover of Art’s deceased mother. In “Autumn,” Daniel had inspired and taught 8-year-old Elisabeth, the daughter of his neighbor, now an adult who still visits Daniel regularly. Upon meeting, Art and Elisabeth fall in love.
Daniel, now 104 years old, “can’t articulate enough how much he dislikes himself for forgetting things he can’t remember.” His mind wanders to the internment of his father in World War I, and his own internment with his father on the Isle of Man in the Second World War. The father was German, despite having lived his life in England.
During the visit with the Greenlaws, Daniel mistakes Robert for his long-lost sister, Hannah. Hannah had fled from the Nazis in World War II to the south of France, where she helped smuggle Jewish children to safety.
After the visit, Art accompanies Elisabeth while Charlotte returns to Iris. When the pandemic starts, Art remains with Elisabeth and Charlotte with Iris in Art’s house.
I won’t destroy the denouement by revealing how all the broken threads are woven together into a family portrait. Survival, joy, pain and coincidence are uniting elements.
“Summer’s like walking down a road … heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without the darkness.”
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.
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By Ali Smith
Pantheon, $27.95, 379 pages