The final instalment of Ali Smith’s quartet, “Summer”, is lorded on the front cover of my copy as ‘a tour de force’ – and for once the publishers are not wrong. In many ways “Summer” is an extraordinary achievement: stylistically inventive, politically astute and opinionated, accomplished in the depiction of character and relationships… Yes, it may take a little while to get into the rhythm of Smith’s prose, and it certainly won’t be for everyone, but it is undoubtedly rewarding if you can become attuned to it.
Her opening depiction of Robert and his relationship with his older sister, Sacha, is extraordinary. The signature event of that first section is suitably shocking, enough to leave you in something of a tailspin about him. But by the end of the novel Smith has rounded him out to be a confused, intelligent, emotional, besotted example of teenage humanity. In many ways a brilliant portrayal.
The political is also never far from the surface of the book – Covid and the impact of lockdowns, the plight of refugees / asylum seekers – and you are rarely in any doubt as to the stance some of the book’s characters are taking, especially Sacha. Smith weaves our own 2020 Summer covid experiences – isolation, mental stress – in with that from decade previously and the fate of ‘undesirable aliens’ during the Second World War. Her paralleling of two time-separated pairs of brother and sister – and then linking them through history – is both inventive and effective.
It is a very vibrant and ‘alive’ work. It feels recently finished, of the moment, and because of that it is relevant and relatable. I wonder where Smith will be going next…