Is it fair, or right, or even practical to start a rave review of one book — and this is absolutely going to be a rave — by asking whether you’ve already read another?
I promise that’s not a homework question. It’s more of a heads-up. The only preparation required to savor the Scottish writer Ali Smith’s virtuosic “Winter” is to pay attention to the world we’ve recently been living in, with its divisions and hardened hostilities, its whipsaw reversals of social progress made.
But “Autumn,” released in early 2017, was the first exquisite novel in Smith’s planned seasonal quartet. “Winter” is the gently linked second. If you haven’t read “Autumn” yet, the beauty of “Winter” will send you racing its way when you’re done.
What Smith has achieved in her cycle so far is exactly what we need artists to do in disorienting times: make sense of events, console us, show us how we got here, help us believe that we will find our way through. Often, that’s what we lean on the classics for, finding answers in metaphor. But in “Winter,” as in “Autumn,” Smith gives us a potent, necessary source of sustenance that speaks directly to our age.
The profound pleasure of these books is their near miracle, shadowed as they are by Brexit and the rise of Trump and set largely in a historical moment when, as Smith writes in “Autumn,” the barrage of news “is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.”
She opens “Winter” in late December, when night settles in early and months of cold stretch out ahead.
“Solstice,” a Londoner named Charlotte says to Art, the morally myopic boyfriend she will cut loose before Christmas arrives. “Darkest days ever. There’s never been a time like this.”
Art’s sudden girlfriendlessness sends him into a panic, as he’s announced to his emotionally chilly mother, Sophia, that Charlotte will be accompanying him on his Christmas visit. Tormented by his own sense of inadequacy, Art offers a young stranger named Lux — a foreigner, as it happens, and homeless — well over $1,000 to accompany him to Cornwall and pretend to be Charlotte.
Unbeknownst to Art, though, Sophia is not her usual self-sufficient self. A retired entrepreneur who made a very nice living once, she has lately lost her mind — not completely, but she is untethered enough to hallucinate a gruesome yet endearing disembodied head, which keeps her company in her many-bedroomed house.
“Good morning,” she says to it, with the chumminess of Scrooge once he gets used to the Ghost of Christmas Past. “Happy day-before-Christmas.” Sophia is much more welcoming to the head than she is to the peaceable Lux, whom she imperiously instructs (shades of the nativity story) to sleep in the barn.
Alarmed at Sophia’s condition and the barrenness and disarray of her home, Art and Lux summon Sophia’s long-estranged older sister, Iris, a big-hearted, septuagenarian, left-wing activist who arrives toting abundant food and a festive tree.
“Why don’t they speak to each other?” Lux asks.
“Differences,” says Art, who is not actually as impossible a cause as his ex-girlfriend believes. “World views. Incompatible.”
For this deeply riven family, Christmas brings necessary confrontations about papered-over history, the vitality of truth, and a common heritage whose simplest facts — as we see in flashbacks — can be open to debate.
Told with warm, sometimes grim humor in a come-closer voice, “Winter” invites us into a microcosm of a fractured, coldly furious, inward-gazing country whose neighborly priorities have shifted since the World War II generation.
“We were named for the places our father fought in, in the war,” Iris tells the young people, and the next two words out of her mouth needle her sister, deliberately or not. “For Europe,” she says.
To Lux, an intellectually voracious student manqué who lacks the proper papers to live the life she yearns for, the dynamic among her holiday hosts reminds her of “Cymbeline,” one of Shakespeare’s untidier dramas.
“A play,” Sophia supplies, remembering the plot without grasping Lux’s implication, “about a kingdom subsumed in chaos, lies, powermongering, division and a great deal of poisoning and self-poisoning.”
“And you can’t see for the life of you how any of it will resolve in the end,” Lux adds, “because it’s such a tangled-up messed-up farce of a mess.”
Smith doesn’t dust her own story with false optimism. “God help us, every one” is its penultimate line.
Yet we, like her characters, are past the winter solstice now — the darkest part of the coldest season done. From here on out, we’re headed toward the light.
It doesn’t feel that way, I know. But in the midst of “Winter,” each page touched with human grace, you might just begin to believe.
By Ali Smith
Pantheon, 336 pp., $25.95
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.