Book Review of Ali Smith's Summer
Summer is the final book in the seasonal series that Smith has completed over the last four years. It is set in pretty much real time and traces recent social and political events such as the climate crisis, Brexit and the current pandemic. The first book in the quartet, Autumn was published in 2016, shortly after the first EU referendum .In Summer Smith is very critical about our world leaders' handling of the current crises, She begins Summer by commenting on the apathy of many people who simply accept what is happening. As such it invites personal reflection and self-criticism. Summer, is not though a book without hope. The younger generation are presented as aware, astute, intelligent and capable of instigating positive change. The question arises whether the cyncism of the world around them will become so ingrained that they will choose not to act.
Summer is the longest book in Smith's quartet. It pulls together connections between characters who feature in all the novels. Smith's texts aren't based around a tight plot, rather they are snapshots of aspects of inter-related characters' lives. In Summer we follow the lives of different groups. These characters are largely middle class and oozing intelligence. This includes siblings Sacha and Robert and their mother; we revisit the life of Art (who appeared in Winter) and Charlotte, and spend time with the ageing Daniel Gluck, a main character in Autumn.
In Smith's explorations of the characters' lives 'time' is the central theme. At different points in Summer the characters reflect philosophically on the nature of time. Robert goes as far as playing a trick on his sister by supergluing an egg timer to her arm. giving her 'time on her hand'. The speed between Smith's writing of the books and the publishing of them, adds an extra dimension to this that is never far from the reader's mind. Time isn't only explored by the characters but is an integral aspect of the writing struture.
It is incredibly difficult to pin down or pigeon hole Ali Smith's writing style. Sharp satire, whimsical exchanges, poetry and even aspects of a Greek chorus (opening the novel) pull together in a masterful tour de force. Shakespeare is frequently referred to and storylines are loosely based on aspects of his plays. Dickens features too, as do artists of the current time.
Ali Smith is without doubt a brilliant writer and a fabulous social commentator. This seasonal series will serve both as a historic record of the current turbulent times and a fine example of literary greatness.
Book Discussion Questions on Ali Smith's Summer
Discuss the siblings Sacha and Robert. To what extent is their relationship typical of a brother/sister relationship? How has their assimilation of societal values affected their views on the world?
The ideas explored in Summer (and Smith's other books) are topical and explored with force and gusto. Do you think the characters in Ali Smith's books are much more intelligent and articulate than most people you come into contact with on a daily basis? If the answer is yes, how does this affect your reading of Smith's books?
Smith is known for her satirical wit and has a cutting abiility to expose characters' flaws. (An example is Art who, despite his artistic leanings, and creative aims has had a far less noble and much duller day time job of being a squealer on artists who break copyright rules.) In Summer Art plans to cope with lockdown by sharing with Charlotte something meaningful that he witnesses each day. He puts this to her with the story of a pigeon carrying a twig in its mouth. Re-read this anecdote. What is the tone and purpose of his sharing this story? Is Ali Smith making fun of him? Do you think Art's idea is a good strategy for handling lockdown?
Is Summer a hopeful or a pessimistic book?
Who is the most interesting character in Summer. Discuss.
When Grace visits Suffolk she revisits the church where she assisted a joiner repairing a church pew. Why does Charlotte need to do this? What is the signficance of the difference between how Charlotte remembers the events and what actually happened? Is the anecdote believable?
In Summer Charlotte finds herself living with her ex-partner's Aunt Iris. Iris involves Charlotte in preparing the large rambling house they inhabit into a refuge for refugees who have been kept in a detention centre. Discuss Iris and what she symbolizes. If you have also read Winter explore how Iris and her sister Sophia are different.
Why does Charlotte barricade herself in her room in Iris' house?
Why do you think Ali Smith refrains from mentioning the pandemic in Summer specifically as Covid -19?
Sacha writes to a refugee ANHKIET who thanks her for having been in touch. Discuss the content of Sacha's postcards. What do they reveal about Sacha? What is Ali Smith saying about the refugee situation?
How is time central to Summer and also the whole series of books. How would you have responded as Robert's parent to his act of supergluing an egg timer to his sister's arm?
Daniel Gluck is described in this guardian review as being the moral centre of Summer. Is he? Discuss.
Book Club Questions on Summer (if you haven't read the book!)
Summer begins with the line 'Everybody said: so?', However, Smith quickly immediately follows this with refuting the claim and saying that millions and millions of people were vocal about climate change, immigration, poor political leadership etc. Discuss what you think is the biggest issue of today's society.
Ali Smith's series of Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer is written over four years and pretty much follows real time. Autumn is written after the first Brexit referendum and Brexit unease and discontent is still being referred to in Summer. Discuss the longevity of the Brexit process and the consequences of it.
Ali Smith uses Art, particularly the pop art of Pauline Boty and literature, often referring to Dickens and using Shakespeare. What aspects of the Shakespeare plays that you know can be used to symbolize events unfolding in the modern world?
Whilst the books in this series don't act as sequels to one another in a traditional sense, in Summer different characters from the other books do come together to make a unified whole. The reader sees seemingly tenuous links come together into a completed picture. Are there examples from your own lives where unsurprising connections between you and others have been made?
In reviews written about Ali Smith's Summer far more attention is paid to the innovative writing style, philosophical ideas and revolutionary speed of books being published linked to real life events than that paid to actual plot. How important is a strong plotline to you in fiction?
Personal Response to Summer
Summer is an utterly amazing book, but it is a text that requires concentration. Ali Smith's writing is dense and intense. I find when I'm reading any Ali Smith, for example Smith's How to be Both, that I have two choices. I can either relish the text as a linguistic and poetic masterpiece, where the rhythms, sounds and cadences immerse and envelop me in a sensory overload, which is simultaneously both pleasurable and painful to read. When adopting this approach there is little point trying to establish too much immediate meaning from the text. The alternative is to read her books in short chunks and analyse the context, content and their significance in a fairly clinical manner. I am simply not clever enough to do both at once.
Upon completing Summer I was aware of having been part of the interconnectedness of my world to the society in Summer. of which I'm also a part. I was also aware of the interconnectedness of the characters in Summer to the other books in the quartet. I feel that this should have given me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but what I actually felt was a great sense of unease. Ali Smith is very convincing in her presentation of a world in utter dissaray. I was left with an overhwelming feeling of helplessness, inadequacy and to some extent, disconnect, both as a reader and a participant of society. Despite this Summer is a book that I think everyone should read.