After securing yet another Booker Prize nomination with her previous novel Autumn, Smith has now returned with the second book in a four-part series named after the seasons. Anybody want to guess the title of this one? Unsurprisingly, for a book called Winter, the story being told in Smith’s latest work takes place during a particularly bleak Christmas period for Sophia Cleaves and her family. Waking up on Christmas Eve to finding a floating and disembodied head in her bedroom, Sophia is forced to consider why such a gruesome sight has chosen to show itself to her in particular. And while she might never fully figure out the answer for herself, close readers will find that there are enough hints given for them to unpick the puzzle.
Perhaps the biggest clue of all comes quite early in the novel when Sophia, wondering if what had happened to the head had hurt it, is surprised to find herself feeling sympathy and pain. Because ‘Sophia had been feeling nothing for some time now’:
‘Refugees in the sea. Children in ambulances. Blood-soaked men running to hospitals or away from burning hospitals carrying blood-covered children. Dust-covered dead people by the sides of the roads. Atrocities. People beaten up and tortured in cells.
Like Autumn before it, Winter is a work that tries to evaluate the landscape since Brexit and Trump opened a lot of people’s eyes to the issues in our society. And, also like in Autumn, Smith does this by portraying a fair and even-handed view of an opinion she clearly doesn’t believe in herself. In Sophia Cleaves, she gives us a character who believes in Brexit and controlled immigration because she believes they are better for Britain. But she doesn’t present the slathering and idiotic racist that many Remainers picture when they think of a Leave voter. Sophia may be misguided and stuck in her ways, but she is not evil. As the floating disembodied head suggests, Sophia is capable of sympathy and concern, but only when it is for something she can see with her own eyes. In an age when it takes a front-page picture of a drowned child to make many people feel even slightly sorry about the plight of refugees, she is an all too familiar character.
As well as Sophia, we also meet her son Art, her sister Iris, and Lux – the girl who Art is paying to pretend to be his girlfriend for the Christmas period. Through these characters we come face to face with Twitter storms, the importance of protest, and the reality of poverty and homelessness for Britain’s immigrant population. Smith is a master at making hard subject matter entertaining, enjoyable, and often amusing. In these characters she portrays some of the main concerns of our age, and she does so with subtlety and nuance.
Any Cop?: If you were to ask if it was as good as Autumn, its predecessor in the series, the answer would have to be no. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t completely brilliant. Smith is the most modern writer we have at the moment, writing about the turbulent times we find ourselves in but not resorting to meek misery and merciless moaning. She shows us how to process the challenges we face with a smile on our faces and an understanding of those we are opposed to. But she doesn’t pull punches when it comes to discussing those who have dragged us down to the depths we find ourselves in. She is, in short, a genius.