TOAST Magazine

Summer by Ali Smith | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

Author Jen Campbell reviews Summer by Ali Smith for TOAST Book Club.

‘It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.’ — Virginia Woolf

I’m not always taken with epigraphs, but the sequence of quotes at the beginning of each of Ali Smith’s seasonal novels feels like poetry. ‘Gently disintegrate me,’ W.S. Graham’s breathes at the start of Autumn, and indeed each of these books disintegrates time and art to create movement and light.

When Ali Smith announced in 2014 that she would be writing her Seasonal Quartet, it was an idea she’d had since publishing her first book twenty-five years ago. She and her editor Simon Prosser sat down and worked out the logistics: she wanted these novels to reflect current times, to feel immediate, and therefore they needed to be published quickly. Could Penguin Random House make sure that these books would be on sale in bookshops within six weeks of each manuscript being filed? That’s pretty much unheard of in the publishing world, and watching this series unfold, anticipating each one, seeing our world unravel, and knowing (however bad things are) at least somewhere Ali Smith is writing about it, has been quite A Thing.

Each of these novels begins with a twisted Dickens quote:

Autumn: ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’ (A Tale of Two Cities)

Winter: ‘God was dead: to begin with.’ (A Christmas Carol)

Spring: ‘Now what we don’t want is Facts.’ (Hard Times)

Summer: ‘Everybody said: so?’ (The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain)

Each of these novels also features a Shakespeare play and has a particular artist or writer at its core. It’s an intertextual feast. Summer embodies A Winter’s Tale, which the character Grace points out is ‘all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible.’ Yet Shakespeare’s typical summer play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is hinted at, too, when several of the characters become infatuated with each other at first sight. And if A Winter’s Tale is really all about summer, Ali Smith’s Winter is really all about Summer, too, as many characters from that novel reappear here (Art, Charlotte, Iris), and Daniel and Elisabeth from Autumn are brought back in, as well. I’ve always maintained that you can read these books in any order, and whilst that remains true, I would recommend starting with Autumn just to feel that warmth of recognition when characters resurface.

Summer begins with Robert, a fan of Albert Einstein, pretending he isn’t a fan of his sister, supergluing an hourglass to her hand as a prank. ‘Now you have time on your hands’ he texts, after fleeing the scene. At the beginning of Autumn, Daniel dreamed of being on a beach, holding sand in his hands and watching it trickle away. In Summer, Sacha is quite literally stuck with a sand timer, standing on a pebble beach: frozen in time. Forced to pause, she is offered help by a pair of unlikely strangers, creating a domino effect of coincidences that will ultimately bring her and her family to Daniel — someone they had previously never met. The novels thus come full circle: ‘put a message in a bottle, throw the bottle into the sea’ says Daniel, as he and his sister write letters to each other and burn them in the night. History repeats itself, characters are mistaken for past versions of other characters, and everyone becomes stories of themselves.

When asked why she decided to begin the quartet with autumn, Ali Smith said she had always planned it that way. She said she wanted to begin with the darker months, and ‘write towards the light.’

Autumn: ‘The nights are sooner, chillier, the light a little less each time.’

Winter: ‘It’s the ghost of a flower not yet open… the mark of the life of it reaching across the page for all the world like a footpath that leads to the lit tip of a candle.’

Spring: ‘I’ll be the reason your own sap’s reviving. I’ll mainline the light to your veins.’

Summer: ‘She picks the chair up. She moves it to the window. She takes a pillow, positions it. The light lessens.’

These books have been a series of light lessons. An experiment in hunting for hope, seeking trust, noticing patterns. Reading them, absorbing them, taking time — it’s all been an absolute joy.  

This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium

Images by Roo Lewis.

Summer (Hamish Hamilton) is Ali Smith's finale to her seasonal quartet. Please share your thoughts and observations below for a chance to win a copy.

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