The concluding novel of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet is a family affair. Her intergenerational group of seeming strangers from the past three novels find themselves flung together at the eroding eastern edge of England. Daniel Gluck, our centenarian from Autumn, now 104, has been moved out of his care home (thank God, given that we know what’s coming — this is February 2020) and into Elisabeth’s mother’s house in Suffolk.
There are some fresh faces too. Sacha and Robert are two children who tag along with Charlotte and Arthur (whom we came across in Winter) to meet him. The children’s parents voted differently in 2016, so now their dad lives next door with his girlfriend, Ashley. She is writing a book, The Immoral Imagination, detailing the ‘updated lexicon’ of post-referendum Britain, like Victor Klemperer’s study of Nazified language: ‘watermelon smiles’, ‘dead in a ditch’, ‘letterbox’.
Daniel presents the familiar framing device of the slowly dying body in a bed. As he flickers between lucidity and recollection, we fall out of the present and into the past: to World War Two and his experience of being interned in a camp at Ascot with other German civilians —despite having lived in the UK since childhood, deemed non-threatening and being Jewish. Meanwhile, his sister makes her way out of Occupied France to Nice, where she helps coordinate the distribution of fake identity papers.
In a pointed parallel in the present, the veteran activist Iris (‘Call me Ire. My name’s the only ire left in me’), continues the work of the Underground Railroad revealed in Spring, which helps those held indefinitely in immigration detention centers. Smith’s co-opting of ‘Underground Railroad’, a phrase so associated with American slavery, is the quickest way she can change our perceptions of the practice of indefinite detention — and she succeeds. In a particularly moving passage, a French character suggests a toast to fraternité, solidarity as a civilian value and duty. It floats free of the siblings separated by war or split by the referendum result and becomes the byword of the whole series.
This is an exuberantly rangy novel, which, like its counterpart in Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, is the most charged and fervent of its peers. It runs us to the brink of the frangible present, and in so doing becomes an ode to the courage of living a life of common decency, whatever the odds.