Summer by Ali Smith review – a remarkable end to an extraordinary quartet

Alex Preston
Photograph: Jason O’Brien/AAP

I’m not sure I’ve ever looked forward to a book as eagerly as Ali Smith’s Summer. This is the final instalment of her seasonal quartet, a series that has already been celebrated by reviewers and readers alike. A vast and dizzyingly ambitious project – each book is written and published in just a few months – the novels seek to be as up to date as it is possible for literature to be. With the Booker-shortlisted Autumn published in October 2016, Winter in November 2017, Spring in March 2019, and now Summer, the four books are both independent novels and work together as a complex, interrelated collage of reflections on the way we live now.

Smith’s series has become a central part of my cultural life, one of the tools with which I attempt to read the moment, both a framing device and a lesson in defence against the dark arts. She says: things are bad, life is complicated; but here are Chaplin’s films and Pauline Boty’s paintings, here is Tacita Dean and Barbara Hepworth, here is Shakespeare and Dickens and Katherine Mansfield. She says: yes there’s Brexit, but here are deep shared ties of history and culture; yes there’s indefinite detention and the climate crisis, but here are people willing to lose their freedom, even their lives, to protest against them; yes there’s loss and loneliness, but here are small moments of connection, of recognition, of dignity. And yet so frantic were the headlines of 2020, so febrile the global temperature, I began to wonder if there was too much reality even for this supremely subtle and supple writer.

We start off, as with each of the books, with a kind of prose poem, a choric voice that speaks for all of us. This one is initially jaded and world-weary. “Everyone said: so?” But then one of the deep themes of these books takes over, and the voice moves from lethargy to engagement. We hear the first notes of protest. “Not everybody said it… Millions and millions of people across the country, and across the world, saw the lying, and the mistreatment of people and the planet, and were vocal about it, on marches, in protests, by writing, by voting, by talking, by activism, on the radio, on TV, via social media, tweet after tweet, page after page…”

The novel is initially presented through the perspective of one of those protesting against “the political cultivation of indifference”, Sacha Greenlaw, a 16-year-old from Brighton. She lives in an unusual family setup with her mother, Grace, and her brother, Robert, who seems to be auditioning for the role of a 13-year-old Nigel Farage. Next door, their father lives with his girlfriend, Ashley, who is writing a book about the power of words and has stopped speaking altogether. It’s February and wildfires are raging across Australia, Covid-19 is beginning to take hold, and, as Sacha says: “All manner of virulent things are happening.”

These novels are rarely blindsided by events, so attuned are they to the spirit of their times

I thought often of Summer as the news hurtled by over the last six months, wondering how Smith would approach first Covid-19 and quarantine, then George Floyd. This is indeed the first serious coronavirus novel, but Black Lives Matter, in fact, hardly makes it into the book, coming just a little too late even for such a breakneck publication schedule. But one of the miraculous things about these novels is that they are rarely blindsided by events, so attuned are they to the spirit of their times, and even if this particular wave of protest features only in passing, the books have always sought to reach through the specific and towards the universal – they are, to quote Ezra Pound, the best kind of literature: “news that stays news”.

As with each of the previous novels, the present-day stories are juxtaposed with a period of history that feels like it contains a message for the contemporary world. This time it’s the 1940s, when wartime Britain rounded up “enemy aliens” and detained them. We find Daniel Gluck, the 100-year-old whose dying dreams we inhabited in the first novel in the series, incarcerated as a young man with his father and a host of other Germans on the Isle of Man, at the Hutchinson Camp. With them there are artists and authors, including Fred Uhlman and Kurt Schwitters, whose work provides the visual language of the novel. We find in Summer other characters from the earlier novels in the series: not only Daniel and his neighbour Elizabeth, but also Art and Charlotte from Winter, and, later, Art’s formidable Aunt Iris. Deep and unexpected links and affinities are revealed between these seemingly isolated figures. What we thought were individual portraits end up being part of a great four-dimensional collage.

These novels are essentially about time, and the vertiginous rush with which they are produced masks something more profound about the way they play with narrative chronology. Summer is the longest of the books so far and it seeks both to tie up previous threads and to gesture to the circularity of the seasons, perhaps of time itself – it’s no coincidence that Einstein features prominently in this final instalment.

Related: ‘Brexit's divisions are fracturing our time’ – Ali Smith on writing Autumn

Each of the books has a Shakespeare play woven into the text and here it’s The Winter’s Tale. That play is about time and forgiveness, about how old wounds can be healed by the passage of years, about how the sins of a despotic ruler can be redressed. The ending of The Winter’s Tale also points towards the hopefulness we find at the end of Summer. “Shakespeare… infects things with winter precisely so he can have a summer, make a merry tale come out of a sad one.”

At one point in Summer, in a letter Sacha writes to a detainee, she speaks of the fact that “the modern sense of being a hero is shining a bright light on things that need to be seen”. There couldn’t be a better description of what Smith is doing. Reading the four books together is a deeply affecting experience, in which we understand the huge ambition that underlies them, the profound and compassionate intelligence that sits at their heart. Ali Smith has completed something truly remarkable in her seasonal quartet, a work that has risen to the challenges of the era that summoned it, but also a series of novels that will endure, telling future generations what it was to live in these fraught and febrile times, and how, through art, we survived.

• Summer by Ali Smith is published by Penguin (£16.99) To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15