Ali Smith: Summer review – a hopeful present, beautifully told

Given her intellectual literary style in Cambridge, it's no surprise that Ali Smiths summer is multi-layered, referential and full of cameos from giants from art and science. It is arguably the best of the four novels in her seasonal quartet that pulls the strings of the previous three without opting for simple conclusions or tying all ends cleanly. summer isn't as challenging as some of her lyrics can be, which (admittedly) is a bit of a relief.

summer begins with Grace (former actress), her ex-husband and new partner who lives next door, and her children Sacha (young activist) and Robert (a boy in the form of Dominic Cummings et al.). The siblings' opposition initially seems too strong, too state-run, but this is tempered by their love and sympathy for one another. Beyond the political dimension one of the most peculiar things summer is how current it is. This is surely one of the first works of published fiction to describe a world of Covid. The Seasonal Quartet was triggered by the Brexit vote, but the Brexit felt depressing like nothing new, just a repetition of old oppositions. This last book feels very fresh because the pandemic itself is a shock. Smith has managed to achieve something that is particularly difficult – to write a fiction about the present without sounding naff. She has gotten a little bit into the trap of the hopeful, proselytizing liberal, but Robert's character somewhat softens and challenges it. She writes him and other young characters very well, without the awkwardness of other older writers.

summer plays many texts (A winterstory, David Copperfield, the story of Hero and Leander etc.) as well as the other novels of the quartet and is underpinned by the story of Einstein in Norfolk. Smith's Joycean trick of writing a novel that is seemingly linear, cyclical, and iceberg-like in depth enables continuous literary detective work. To follow a strand, the book almost ends in Roughton Heath near Cromer, where Einstein stayed during the war. Philip Glass created together Einstein on the beach as a document of that time. The original concept may have been Chaplin or Hitler, both of which are in summer. Einstein's exile is also an echo in the text. The opera is cyclical, examining Einstein's own notions of connectedness. So it is summer itself. I could scroll endlessly through Wikipedia, but you get the picture. It's something very rambling Sebaldian summer also, particularly its partial setting in Norfolk.

summer is a well-written contemporary document, the relevance of which is solely a motive for reading. It has a sharpness that stays away from a banal ending, but allows moments of beauty and calm perception along the way. It can sometimes seem a little uncomfortably obvious, especially when Daniel Gluck's internment during the war is juxtaposed with the internment of the political prisoner / refugee hero (Anh Kiệt) in the present, but even this is relatively nuanced. Bags of other stories within the larger arc are as tempting as the main story. Nothing feels superfluous and all things are connected, no matter how weird.

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