Summer is the final novel in Scottish author Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, which began in 2016 with Autumn. It pulls the threads through from her previous three books, without ever tying all the ends together too neatly. Despite being multi-layered and filled with walk-on parts from giants in the fields of art and science, Summer is also not as challenging as some of Smith’s other work – which is, admittedly, a bit of a relief.
The quartet could be read as a furious response to the Brexit vote and the ensuing chaos, and it ends in the year that we officially leave the European Union. Smith ensures it remains startlingly relevant: it must be one of the first literary responses to Covid-19, written and concluding in the midst of the pandemic.
Summer opens by introducing us to former actress Grace, her ex-husband and his new partner, and her children Sacha (a young activist) and Robert (a troublemaker in the mould of Dominic Cummings or Andrew Breitbart). The siblings’ opposition initially seems too stark, too symbolic of a divided nation, but this is softened by their love and sympathy for one another. Smith occasionally comes across as a hopeful, proselytising liberal, but this is tempered by the character of Robert. She writes him and other young characters convincingly.
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There are a great range of voices and narratives in Summer, including a memorable section about Albert Einstein’s time in Norfolk while on the run from the Nazis. The timeline moves between the Second World War and the present day, tracking lives that delicately touch or complement each other. Everything has its place, with the past offering a comment on the present, and vice versa.
Smith’s trick of writing a novel that, while seemingly linear, often turns back on itself, allows for continuous literary detective work. There is something wandering and digressive about Summer, with a gentle nod to the novels of WG Sebald (also often set in Norfolk), which seem to take every tangent they can.
To follow one strand, the book almost ends on Roughton Heath, near Cromer, where Einstein stayed during the war. Philip Glass collaboratively created Einstein on the Beach as a document of this time. When originally conceived, the piece was potentially going to be about Chaplin or Hitler, both present in Summer.
This is a well-written document of the present and its relevancy alone is motive enough for reading. There is a poignancy, which steers clear of a trite ending but allows for moments of beauty and quiet perceptiveness along the way. Pockets of other stories within the larger arc are just as enticing as the main tale. Nothing feels superfluous, and all things are linked, no matter how obliquely.
Summer by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99)