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Winter by Ali Smith

The first question I ask myself about this book is bound to be – is it as good as 'Autumn'? And the answer to that is – well, not as straightforward as a simple yes or no.

'Winter' may stick in my mind longer than 'Autumn', the first in this seasonal quartet, for the simple reason that it is so different. There are parts that I still don't fully understand and there are references which I probably missed. 'Winter' is all about that darkest season of the year which will inevitably include Christmas, that most difficult of family reunions. I think if I had read more Dickens, then I might have picked up some additional references. There are certainly some obvious ones to Shakespeare plays.

This is a very enjoyable novel and that is mainly down to the four central characters. Art, short for Arthur, is the subject of many puns and writes a blog called Art in Nature. His mother is called Sophia and lives in a remote Cornish house along with remnants of stock from her retail business and several completely empty rooms. She is the Scrooge-like character, with no love of Christmas (or her own child come to that). She has a sister called Iris who has always been a rebel and campaigner, politically motivated against governments, wars, chemicals, poisons and lies. Iris and Sophia have not spoken to each other for decades. The forth main protagonist is Lux, or Charlotte as she pretends to be. Art is due to visit his mother for Christmas, but just before has argued with his girl-friend Charlotte. After this falling out, he has approach Lux at a bus stop and asked her to pretend to be Charlotte for four days and offered to pay her a thousand pounds to do so.

Thus the scene is set for an unusual Christmas encounter when family members will learn much about themselves and more than they need to know about each other. The stories and family history are rich with humour and vitality. Sophia and Iris will not get on. Sophia will refuse to eat, except in the middle of the night when she encounters Lux in the kitchen. Art does not know how to talk to his mother and has been left emotionally damaged by his lack of a father and years spent away at boarding school. The domestic scenes are wonderful. Mother and aunt argue about who has told the young Art certain childhood stories. Lux turns out to be deeper and more endearing than anyone imagined and leaves Art with images and stories that will haunt him. Art turns out to be something of a fraud.

And then there is the floating head. I think you should read the book yourselves to figure out what is going on there. I’m still not sure.

Read 'Winter' for the characters, read it for the humour and the portrait of relationships at Christmas, that most strained of all seasonal events.

Somewhere in the book there will be a link back to the previous volume, ‘Autumn’. Essentially they are quite different books but both have a very contemporary setting. Events referred to from the USA and from British politics are just a few months old.

I can't wait for 'Spring'.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Hamish Hamilton, RRP $36.00

Purchase from Fishpond