“Summer,” says a character in Ali Smith’s new novel, “is really an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something.” Smith’s quartet of seasonal novels has also been heading for summer. Beginning with Autumn in 2016, they have arrived punctually, one per year, each in its eponymous season and as close to the events described as possible. The project has been an attempt to narrow the gap not only between a novel’s conception and its publication, but between art and the reality it consumes in order to produce itself.
One rule of thumb would have it that the smaller the gap, the lesser the art. Can any novel produced at such lightning pace possibly be good? Summer provides a cheeky nod to this inevitable question. Devotees of the series will recognise Daniel Gluck as its moral centre; in this novel he writes to his sister Hannah about life in a British internment camp during the second world war. His fellow detainees have been debating this very issue: “Should The Artist Portray His Age? ... And you would be so proud of me because I spoke up and said but what about the artist portraying her own age, and when I did I was nearly laughed out of the room … ”
Smith’s dazzling experiment in simultaneity has pointedly thumbed its nose at rules of thumb. The result is indeed a maestra’s portrait of her age, a project at once staggeringly ambitious and entirely of a piece with a quarter-century body of work that teases so delightfully along the limits of EM Forster’s question: “What does a novel do?” Which makes it all the more pleasing to report that, like the other novels in the series, Summer is a refreshing innovation of form and content, inhabiting the region Smith identified in her essayistic hybrid of fiction/nonfiction Artful as “the forbidden magic at the border of things”. A line in the prologue describing a man balanced on a narrow ledge around a high building could sum up the reaction to reading it: “How can what [s]he’s doing be so wild and still so graceful, so urgent and blithe both at once?” How fitting that this novel should narrate for you how you feel about reading it at the very moment when you feel it, text pressing so closely against life it’s as if we are being challenged to spot the difference.
But Smith’s experimentation always works in the service of good old-fashioned storytelling rather than at its expense, making it both wildly innovative and reassuringly familiar at the same time. The story here introduces a cast of new as well as recurring characters, travelling between contemporary Brighton, wartime France and British second world war internment camps. It opens with narration by a Greek-style chorus, a collective voice reporting on an apathetic season of “so what” and shoulder shrugs, before issuing this warning: “History’s made it clear what happens when we’re indifferent, and what the consequences are of the political cultivation of indifference.”
Then we meet Grace, who “was in acting once” before marriage and motherhood, and who often shuttles backwards in memory and in conversation to her last hurrah, playing Hermione in The Winter’s Tale in the summer of 1989. Her 16-year-old daughter Sacha is the sort of clever girl who wears her intelligence like armour against a world she finds unbearably obtuse. Like so many clever girls of her generation, she’s forced to be a climate change Cassandra. “We’re all antediluvian right now,” she insists, in the face of her mother’s resounding inattention. By contrast, Grace’s 13-year-old son Robert is more Jordan Peterson than Greta Thunberg: “The kind of boy who gets sent home for saying things in class like why is there anything wrong anyway with saying a black person has a watermelon smile?”
Summer fulfils, with punning literalness, Forster’s maxim that “every novel has a clock in it”. When Robert superglues an egg timer to Sacha’s hand (giving her “time on her hands ha ha”) on Brighton beach, she’s rescued by Art and Charlotte, the estranged couple whom we met in Winter, and this propels the assembled characters off on a joint road trip. That’s another Smith speciality: metaphorically gluing strangers to one another and seeing what happens, as a way of teasing out her recurring concerns – how we act on, and change, one another as well as how we are changed when we encounter art, and how art is changed when it encounters other art.
But her novels are also intended to sound alarms, to borrow EB White’s 1969 description of a writer’s role (“The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done”). While reading Summer, with all manner of “virulent things […] happening” on its pages, I had the prickling urge to flip all the way back to the first page of Autumn. There we first met Daniel Gluck: 101 years old, and a resident of a home run by The Maltings Care Providers plc; in Summer he becomes the object of Art and company’s impromptu pilgrimage. If all road (trip)s lead back to the beginning, this one leads to the realisation that Smith’s state-of-the-nation series opened in 2016 in a care home, and closes four years later just after they’ve become some of the most vulnerable places in the land.
Who could have known that the ticking clock of Brexit would give way to the stalled clocks of lockdown? But Smith admirably avoids the mistake of making Covid-19 (which is never even named) the only thing, or even the dominant thing, about the summer she describes. The most transcendent bits of this transcendent novel come when Daniel weaves in and out of memories of being interned in British camps on British soil during the war. “We have been here behind the wire all through the open door of the summer,” he writes to Hannah. It’s the novel’s most arresting line, lifting off the page like a swift on the wing, and it is echoed when Grace, looking for a church she remembers from 30 years ago, comes instead to “a massive wire fence that seemed to block off most of the common” and is informed that “it’s a government place for people who don’t belong in this country”.
This novel is a remarkable resolution of Smith’s project, which has felt all along as if it wants to nudge us towards hope
The spectre of immigration removal centres (IRCs) was a particular focus of Spring. Here, we are reminded that today’s refugee centres are the successors of wartime internment camps, that the cracks forming in lockdown Britain run right down ancient faults. In one contemporary scene, Charlotte is sequestered during lockdown in a 16-bedroom house with Art’s aunt Iris, who wants to open their doors to recently released refugees from the IRC down the road. Charlotte responds by barricading herself in her bedroom. Concerns about climate change, about our treatment of refugees (the “strangers” in our midst), about freedom of movement, run like live wires through all four books, notwithstanding that: “The pandemic is making walls and borders and passports as meaningless as nature knows they are.”
Each novel has been part of a larger jigsaw puzzle that may now finally be assembled. Each one has also been its own collage of ideas and stories, an exercise in artful juxtaposition and exuberant ekphrasis. Framed by Smith’s intersecting discourses on literature and art, they weave together strands left by other artists, chief among them Dickens and Shakespeare. Here, the Dickens is David Copperfield, and for those of you wondering whether winter doesn’t feel like a more natural conclusion than summer, the Shakespeare is The Winter’s Tale, about which one character says it’s “all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible.”
The Winter’s Tale is ultimately a play about forgiveness, and when Summer opens Sacha and Grace are unable to resolve an argument about Sacha’s poorly attributed, internet-sourced attempts to quote Hannah Arendt in a school essay: “Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.” No resolution to be found there, perhaps, but this novel is a remarkable and clear-sighted resolution of Smith’s project, which has felt all along as if it wants to nudge us towards hope, towards the idea that if we want to reverse the irreversible flow of history, we have to look to what the novel can do.
• Summer is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charged may apply.