Seasonal quartet

Seasonal quartet

I got Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet (as a fan of quartets and trilogies) for my birthday this year and started at the beginning with Autumn. This is a life-affirming novel, which explores the friendship of Daniel and Elisabeth in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Daniel is over a hundred years old and is in a nursing home slipping in and out of consciousness and is diligently visited by Elisabeth, who is in her early thirties. They have known each other since Elisabeth was a child living alone with her Mum and Daniel was their next-door neighbour.

Daniel plays a key role in Elisabeth’s childhood, always treating her as an adult and encouraging her to read, to learn and to ask questions of the world. Elisabeth’s Mum is wary of their friendship, worrying about an old man’s interest in her daughter, but their friendship continues until Elisabeth loses touch with Daniel in her twenties. Then by chance, Elisabeth’s mother moves house and discovers that Daniel’s nursing home is nearby, giving Elisabeth a chance to reconnect before it is too late.

Daniel drifts between dreams of his childhood and his past connections with Christine Keeler, as Elisabeth sits by his bedside taking to him, waiting for him to wake, whilst care assistants push trolleys in an out of his room. She also tries to find a way of getting Daniel some money that is rightfully his, conscious that his ability to pay for the care home is running out. And all the while she, and the rest of the country, try to make sense of the recent Brexit vote.

Thoroughly out of sync with the seasons, I moved on to read Winter in the late summer. It’s Christmas in Cornwall and Sophia is thinking back to her childhood in the sixties with her now estranged sister Iris. Art (short for Arthur) is in London, having just split up with his girlfriend Charlotte and in desperation, he pays someone he meets on the street to come to Cornwall with him for Christmas and pretend to be his girlfriend. But when they finally arrive after an epic journey, they find Art’s mother Sophia in trouble and call on Iris to help. As it flicks back and forward in time, the lives of Iris, a seasoned protestor, and Sophia are revealed and Art rethinks his life and his social media persona.

As Autumn turned to winter, I read Spring. Richard is mourning the death of his good friend Paddy and on a whim gets a train to Scotland and finds himself on a station platform about to commit suicide. He’s prevented by the appearance of schoolgirl Florence, who has also travelled to Scotland on a whim, in the company of Brittany, who works as a custody officer in an immigration removal centre where the asylum seekers are degraded and treated like criminals. Brittany has no idea what they are doing there, but suspects Florence is the girl who recently broke into the removal centre and wants to get her safely home to her foster family and to find out what she was doing breaking in to somewhere that most people would want to break out of. They are joined by Richard after Florence saves him and from there things get even murkier.

Finally, in the run up to Christmas I read Summer. This is a lovely end to the quartet, as it brings many of the main characters from each book together. Teenage brother and sister Robert and Sacha live in Brighton with their Mum, whilst their Dad and his new girlfriend live next door. They are both very political but are political opposites and are fighting it out when Art and Charlotte bump into them. They end up joining with them on an expedition to East Anglia where they meet Daniel and Elisabeth. The detainees in the immigration removal centre also make an appearance and ties are made between people whose lives have been atomised by Brexit and then Covid.

This is a gripping contemporary series which deals with the big themes of our age, through the daily struggles and relationships of a fascinating group of people. And fundamentally it is a profoundly hopeful coming together of people across divides.