Summer by Ali Smith

September 21st, 2020

“I wanted to send you an open horizon,” one character writes to another in this book (121). They’ve never met; they may never meet. The character doing the writing is a teenager who is 1) worried about climate change, 2) protective of and infuriated by her sometimes-difficult/provocative younger brother, and 3) dealing with life in England in 2020, with Brexit and COVID-19 and lockdown and remote schooling. The recipient of the letter is an immigrant, probably/possibly still in a detention center, though Sacha, the letter-writer, doesn’t know for sure. She writes, anyway: about the arrival of the swifts in England as the start of every summer, about how “if you were to open a swift, metaphorically of course, the rolled-up message they carry inside them is the unfurled word SUMMER” (119). Summer is that open horizon, at least in imagination or memory, though summer is also heat and stink; another character thinks about how “the whole season is like the smell round a garbage truck as it moves through the city and like you’re stuck on a bike behind it going way too slowly down a too-narrow street” (100). It’s “the briefest and slipperiest of the seasons,” the one that “won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called perfect or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed” (290).

In Summer, characters and themes from the prior three books in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet recur: there is a lot about family, and memory, and art; we get wordplay and arguments and news clips and politics. And connection, by chance or by choice. Late in the book, a different character talks about having “a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always the choice we’ve got” (364). So: summer, the sky wide, birds and stars overhead: possibility, even amidst everything.

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