Ali Smith’s Winter (2018), the second of a quartet (Autumn appeared last fall) is about Christmases past and present, hearth and earth, the regenerative powers of winter, and the complexities of family life. It is also a very punningly funny and political Brexit novel.
The references to Bowie work thematically — and continue the subtle tributes that I keep finding accidentally.
It’s 2003, and at the reception following his grandfather’s funeral, 17-year-old Art is approached by a woman living out loud, one so different from his mother, but who claims to be his Aunt Iris (Ire). He doesn’t remember her, although she promises they spent a quarter of his life together. She is trying to get to know the young man he is now:
“Tell me something real, try again. . . .
So, Arthur, she says, in a voice pretending to be a boring relative’s voice. How’s school…which university will you try for… what will you call the three children you’ll have,” ad nausuem. (170)
To which Arthur replies,
“Right now I am spending an inordinate amount of time listening to this, he says.
He gets his ipod out of his pocket.
What is it? she says. A transistor radio?
A what? he says.
He unwinds the earphones and plugs them in. He switches it on. He scrolls through til he finds track two of Hunky Dory. He hands her the headphones.” (170-171)
A few pages later, Art, who once again has been shut down by his mother Sophia, thinks of his aunt’s reaction:
“I used to play this, she shouted…
She started singing the lines about the nightmares coming and the crack in the sky.”(174)
“Oh you Pretty Things/Don’t you know you’re driving your/Mamas and Papas insane.” That would be Iris in the 1970s, a founding member of the Greenham Common protest, with her arrests at anti-nuclear demonstrations. But at the end of her father’s life, it is she who took charge of young Art when his mother dumped him at his grandfather’s.
Art was a passive child, outwardly simply an inconvenience to his mother, but he made her feel “physically terrible, bombarded by transference aches, every time she is anywhere near him and his sensitivity” (243).
Christmastime 2016, and the craziness has flipped, as it will when parents become more like themselves each day, and the squabbling of his aunt and mother are driving Art insane.
“All the strangers came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay.”
Lux is a complete stranger who Art has hired to pretend to be his girlfriend for the holidays. Born in Canada, a child of Croatian refugees, she cannot bear the sorrow of their lives. She is brilliant and luminous. She reads everything. Aunt Iris will return to Greece to help refugees after Christmas; Sophia complains of the people “coming here because they want our lives” (206).
Lux declares Art’s family reminds him of the one in Cymbeline, and it was thinking if a country could produce a writer like Shakespeare, then that is where she wants to be. So she came to England, but her money ran out before she finished her degree. The most beautiful thing she has ever seen was on a school trip to the Fisher Museum in Toronto: The ghostly imprint of a rosebud once placed between two pages of Cymbeline.
Other Bowie Bits
Two of Bowie’s heroes, Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley, are mentioned in a single paragraph describing the Christmas night when Sophia first met Art’s father. It is December 25, 1977, the day Chaplin died. Sophie mentioned that this year’s Christmas marathon has been of Elvis movies (he died in August of 1977).
Sitting in a Tin Can
As a child Sophia was stricken by the fate of Laika, the dog sent into orbit by the Russians. Her father forty years later calls her to report that Laika “didn’t have to circle the earth in that tin can for a whole week before it died. No. Lucky for that dog, it died only a few hours after they blasted it into space” (244).
But businesswoman Sophia is now just too busy with a “worldwide strategy video conference call” (243) to listen to her old man go on about a dog.