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Summer

September 1, 2020
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Summer is my favorite season. I love the warmth, the colors, the fireflies and cicadas, smell of cut grass, flowers, feel of dirt, sand, the exuberance of blue skies. And Summer is my favorite of Ali Smith’s seasonal novels. I loved Autumn, Winter, and Spring, but I love Summer the best of all. If you read only one novel this year, let it be this one.

This series of seasonal novels has been a challenge for Smith, to write one novel each year and get it published in the appropriate season, making art more closely relevant to current events than is usually possible. As Sara Collins says in The Guardian: “How fitting that this novel should narrate for you how you feel about reading it at the very moment when you feel it, text pressing so closely against life it’s as if we are being challenged to spot the difference.”

In Summer, Smith weaves in the stories of new characters with a few of the characters from previous novels, letting us see what her characters cannot — a pattern, the links between different people feeling alone and powerless, living through troubled times. Reading each of her seasonal novels made these last few seasons easier to bear, and reading this one was the biggest relief of all. Finally, someone is saying it. Finally someone has made some sense out of what’s happening.

The novel opens with an airing of frustrations:
“when so many people voted people into power who looked them straight in the eye and lied to them: so?
When a continent burned and another melted: so?
When people in power across the world started picking off groups of people by religion, ethnicity, sexuality, intellectual or political dissent: so?”

And from its very beginning, this novel commits to exploring everything summer can mean to people, starting with the feeling in a teenage girl’s chest when her mother says she’s proud of her: “Sacha’s chest filled with the kind of warmth that once when she was really small she’d asked her mother about because it felt so nice and her mother’d said that’s your inner summer.”

There’s a bedtime story, “the one about the summer day that argued with the gods about never wanting to be over.” (This is a necromancy trope, by the way, when mortals do it.) The gods laugh, “as if a summer’s day wasn’t long enough.” And by the end, the mortals know “that the flowers only last a summer, that a summer is soon over.”

The characters even think about the play The Winter’s Tale in terms of summer, saying that “a blight comes down” on Leontes, “on his mind and on his country from nowhere. It’s irrational. It has no source. It just happens. Like things do, they just suddenly change, and it’s to teach us that everything is fragile and that what happiness we think we’ve got and imagine will be forever ours can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye.” Even the play itself, this character insists, exists because Shakespeare anticipates summer: “he infects things with winter precisely so that he can have a summer, make a merry tale come out of a sad one.” She asserts that “The Winter’s Tale’s all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important.”

Summer is a metaphor:
“Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark. Because summer isn’t just a merry tale. Because there’s no merry tale without the darkness.
And summer’s surely really all about an imagined end. We head for it instinctually like it must mean something. We’re always looking for it, looking to it, heading towards it all year, the way a horizon holds the promise of a sunset. We’re always looking for the full open leaf, the open warmth, the promise that we’ll one day soon surely be able to lie back and have summer done to us; one day soon we’ll be treated well by the world. Like there really is a kinder finale and it’s not just possible but assured, there’s a natural harmony that’ll be spread at your feet, unrolled like a sunlit landscape just for you. As if what it was always all about, your time on earth, was the full happy stretch of all the muscles of the body on a warmed patch of grass, one long sweet stem of that grass in the mouth.
Care free.
What a thought.
Summer.
…The briefest and slipperiest of the seasons, the one that won’t be held to account—because summer won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called or imagined perfect summers, summers that next existed.
…So we mourn it while we’re in it.”

We even get perspectives on the word “summer” when it’s used to mean a beam that “holds up a floor, a ceiling, both” or for “horses that carry a great weight.”

One of the characters, Robert, who is 13 years old, goes around repeating things he’s heard, trying to be provocative, and some of the things he says are things people are thinking but most of us are not saying. For example, this conversation with his father’s girlfriend, who says:
“In times of injustice you always have to be ready to speak up, to speak out loudly against it.
Robert Greenlaw: If you do, you’ll be one of the first they’ll kill.
His father’s girlfriend: It won’t come to that. Not if enough people speak out.
Robert Greenlaw: Yeah but what if it does?
His father’s girlfriend: If it does, than I’m not worried, they can kill me if they like, because I trust and I know there’ll be so many more who’ll come after me to speak out just as loud.
Robert Greenlaw: They’ll all get killed too.
His father’s girlfriend: Justice will always win.
Robert Greenlaw: Yeah but that totally depends on what the people who make the laws decide to define justice as.”

Offering an opposing view to Robert’s is Daniel, who is 104 years old. His memories of life in an internment camp during the second world war are parallel to the lives we hear about in camps for would-be immigrants. His perspective is wider than Robert’s and more forgiving. He is being taken care of by a neighbor’s daughter, who asks him “what’s in the paper today, then?” His reply is:
“Thugs and showmen in power….Nothing new. A clever virus. That’s news. The stocks and shares will shake. There’ll be people who do very well out of that. One more time we’ll find out what’s worth more, people or money.
He thinks of his mother’s face….She died old, in her fifties.
I for one don’t want to die young, he says.
His neighbor’s daughter laughs.
What my mother’d say if she were here is, it’s a bit late for that, Mr. a Hundred and Four, she says.
Whatever age you are, he says, you still die young.
His neighbour’s daughter beams a smile at him.
His neighbour’s daughter loves him.
My father lived through the Spanish flu, he says. I only once heard him talk about it. He said you had to remember not to take it personally. Then you stopped being scared.”

Although there is hope in this novel, it doesn’t end on a hopeful note. We’re reminded that we’re still suffering because of “a too-late response from a useless and distracted government who never thought for a minute they’d end up governing anything. Whose only thought about state was how to dismantle it as fast as possible. Who thought it was all going to be such a blast, being in power, making lots of money for themselves and their pals.”

We’re reminded that “the pandemic is making walls and borders and passports as meaningless as nature knows they are.”

And we’re reminded that even if we have a moment of genius, like the 13-year-old or the 104-year-old man, when we are able to capture our age in words so apt that they make a lump in readers’ throats, like Ali Smith, that such an achievement is fleeting.

It’s a book as lovely and ephemeral as its title.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 1, 2020 12:46 pm

    I promised myself that I would wait until all of these were available and then read them as if they were one novel. Now that’s possible I suddenly find myself with so much else I need to read I don’t know when I’ll find time to do it. A Christmas project perhaps?

    • September 3, 2020 11:44 am

      I would urge you to make time for them. They felt healing to me. Here I am, going nowhere, seeing no one, and in a country where it seems that a few people are choosing to ignore the pandemic and the peaceful protests and the bids for authoritarian government. Sometimes it makes me feel delusional, that so much is wrong and people are pretending nothing is wrong.

  2. rohanmaitzen permalink
    September 1, 2020 4:29 pm

    “If you read only one novel this year, let it be this one.” Strong words! Your account of the novel is very convincing, though I did not love Autumn, the only one in the series that I’ve read. Spring is my own favorite season: maybe I should go back and try that one! (I miss real spring so much: I grew up in a place with a long, gorgeous, colorful spring starting in February, and now I live in a place that goes from winter to summer with a long season of fog and rain in between.)

    • September 1, 2020 6:06 pm

      I haven’t read any of these books but I’m putting them on my list. Lovely review! I have read a book called “Summer” by Edith Wharton about a short lived summer romance but it is quite dark and different in tone.

    • September 3, 2020 11:46 am

      Rohan, I would urge you to read Spring and see if you like it any better than Autumn, which was the first of this series. I do think this last one is the best, though.
      Literarygitane, there is darkness in Summer but the tone is hopeful, mostly because people are noticing the darkness (see my comment to Cafe Society about how crazy it makes me feel when people don’t notice the darkness).

  3. September 2, 2020 6:32 am

    I’ve heard so many good things about this series and especially this novel. Thanks for underlining them, Jeanne.

    • September 3, 2020 11:47 am

      It’s my pleasure. I felt like this post is my love letter to the series.

  4. September 2, 2020 9:02 am

    Aww, this is such a neat project by the author. Summer in Louisiana is… you know! So autumn is my favorite season, though I suspect our autumn isn’t tremendously dissimilar to your summer. 😛 I’m looking forward to the days turning a bit cooler so I can start going for walks again!

    • September 3, 2020 11:53 am

      Yes, I suspect that summer feels very different to someone who has always lived in England. Here in Ohio summer weather is mostly confined to the days between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I can remember days in late August when it was already so rainy and chilly I had to wear long sleeves, which I hate. One of the things I love about summer is the freedom to wear clothes that barely touch me at all. I like the assurance that I won’t be cold no matter what I’m wearing (an assurance I get in July as long as I stay out of the kind of AC they have in TX and probably places in LA–we used to go to the Texas Shakespeare Festival in Longview and I remember always packing a jacket or sweater because it was so cold in the theater).

  5. September 5, 2020 1:38 pm

    I am glad to hear you liked the book! I just finished Winter and really liked it. I plan on reading Spring in winter and Summer in spring. Ha! Clearly I am against matching seasons IRL with the seasons in my reading 😀

    • September 5, 2020 1:40 pm

      If you’re doling them out to help you save your sanity I understand that. But I would urge you to devour them all at one gulp; it’s how they were written, it’s what they’re for, and they do feel so healing for a reader like me (and, I think, also you)

  6. September 10, 2020 9:18 pm

    So, if I were to read all four — which season do I start first?

    • September 11, 2020 8:28 am

      If you want to read them in order, start with Autumn and go in order of the seasons, with Winter next, then Spring, and finishing with Summer.
      It’s not necessary to read them in order, or to read more than one, but the overlapping storylines won’t have an effect unless you go in order.

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