Book review: Ali Smith, Winter; Susie Boyt, Love and Fame

Sparks fly and sorrow floats in two thought-provoking portraits of contemporary British family life

National treasure (she’ll love that:-/) Ali Smith has developed a style so original and successful we can now describe something as Ali Smithian and assume readers will know what to expect. A bewitching mood half-way between the everyday and illusion; intoxicating flights of imagination; an effortless combination of pathos and humour. A word-playing mystery as mind-bending as it is heart-thumping.

Winter, however, is a disaster, failing to deliver on every level.

Nah, just joking. It’s a joy. Yes, another one.

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After a cute little nod to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Smith introduces us to Sophia, a cantankerous sexagenarian who is being stalked by the disembodied head of a young child. The head is described so simply and naturally that its constant presence quickly seems entirely normal, rather like that of a needy pup. It follows her around as she irritably prepares for the visit of her son, nature writer Art (nice name), and his girlfriend on Christmas day

Her extraordinary gift for linguistic playfulness, alongside the quirks in her conversational free-style, are key to Smith’s Sparky magic.

There are many writers who aim to write light-shining contemporary novels while casting an unbroken spell of poetic profundity comparable to Smith’s. Fearful of the jarring awkwardness of believable dialogue, and the ugly vocabulary of technology, slang and social media, they regularly duck out of acknowledging both. They also often avoid giving characters names, because names have a habit of grounding a story in time and place.

Smith, however, incorporates such elements without ever spoiling the hypnotic effect of her dreamy mood. Painterly descriptions of bejewelled winter landscapes and lyrical, wordy passages conjuring fantasy and myth flow effortlessly into frustrating encounters with admin-fixated bank managers, disheartening google searches and fake tweets. (She even includes a witty, pretty parody of the bon mot-ridden sentimental ‘wisdom-through-experience’ journey readers might expect from a literary novel called Winter; the platitudinous one Sophia would like to star in, but Smith would never write.)

Her extraordinary gift for linguistic playfulness, alongside the quirks in her conversational free-style – unusual but never contrived – are key to Smith’s Sparky magic. Here, her wickedly keen eye addresses issues as diverse as Brexit, the decaying planet, the increasing power of misinformation, and the undulating relationships within a fractious family. This is a story about death and survival, echoes and ghosts, haunted by folklore, fairytales, Shakespeare, Dickens, even the late David Bowie. With the kind of bracing clarity a sharp frost brings, Smith gives us a post-truth winter’s tale which, though sceptical, unsettling, and often scathing about the modern world, also tugs at the heartstrings so deftly you can feel them ping inside you. Quite a thing.

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Susie Boyt is another dab hand at blissfully immersive fiction. It may be trite to say that the daughter of Lucien, granddaughter of Sigmund is psychologically penetrating, but there we have it. She is also extremely funny, with a brilliant ear for zippy dialogue and an eagle eye for delusional egotistical fops.

Boyt is enviably clever and sharp, and she has a heart the size of a house.

Her new novel Love and Fame centres around two note-perfect anxiety-ridden female protagonists mourning the death of a parent. Tabloid journalist Rebecca and ex-actress Eve are plagued by angsty, antsy inner voices, but have enough empathetic sensitivity to sorrow and disappointment to make them eminently relatable. Boyt is enviably clever and sharp, and she has a heart the size of a house. Oddly, this book also contains a very good joke about a disembodied head. Analyse that.

Ali Smith, Winter (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) out now

Susie Boyt, Love and Fame (Virago, £14.99) out now