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Book Review: Ali Smith's 'Winter' and Charlotte McDonald-Gibson’s 'Cast Away'

Ali Smith is an author who never fails to subtly reference the wider political climate within

her novels and Winter (2016) is not excluded from such a genealogy.

Set within the Christmas period (so now would be the perfect time to pick up this novel!),

Winter observes four wildly different characters intertwined within the four walls of Sophia’s

home for the Christmas period, and illuminates and interconnects their disparate opinions

toward global current events, an anxiety expected by many large families around the

Christmas period. However, not only does Smith interlace a political stance within the novel

but it is also illustrated by a sporadic pattern of visitations, all largely uninvited and

unwelcomed, except the welcomed, although fictitious, visit of a small migrant bird, the

Canada warbler.

The Canadian warbler; birds are often used as a metaphor for migration

A busload of excited visitors, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird, invade

into Sophia’s home, using her computer and helping themselves to her food, and then leave,

rather promptly, without a whisper of gratitude. The bird’s feigned visit, fabricated by Art’s

ex-girlfriend, and transgression of borders is celebrated by the birdwatchers, creating a

peculiarly brief commotion that contrasts to the previously tense atmosphere within the


The bird’s welcomed transgression of British borders is, thus, contrasted with Sophia’s certain insouciance towards human immigration policies. Smith’s dialogues expose opposing discursive stances on the modern refugee crisis that have been circulating within global discourse through Sophia and Iris who are positioned as the two opposing political poles.

Thus, through interweaving opposing discourse, Smith’s fiction acts as a socio-political medium that provides its readers with an insight into the diverse narratives that continues to surround British public debate on immigration.

The diverse attitudes towards and treatment of the wanted and unwanted visitors in Smith’s

text can be explored alongside Charlotte McDonald-Gibson’s 'Cast Away: Stories of Survival

from Europe’s Refugee Crisis'. The factually-based narratives interlaced within McDonald-

Gibson’s nonfiction provides to its reader an in-depth perspective on the refugees’ plight to

safety and asylum in the EU as well as a series of statistics if you hope to broaden your

understanding on the European refugee crisis.

The author asserts that a large majority of refugees must ‘fight their way through a hostile bloc of countries more determined than ever to keep them out’ (278); however, she contends, refugees ‘will keep finding their way to Europe’s shores, desperation forcing them around whatever barriers are put in their way’ (298).

According to McDonald-Gibson, then, existing in the void space between two inimical

poles is the fraught reality faced by the millions of refugees whose journey towards the EU

border is driven by none other than fear and desperation.

To conclude this article and to encourage you to read Winter at the earliest opportunity, the

following quote by Lux, the Croatian immigrant within Smith’s text, is a question that

continues to run through global discourse on the European refugee crisis :

‘But what will the world do, though, Mrs Cleves, Lux says, if we can’t solve the problems of the millions and millions of people with no home to go to or whose homes aren’t good enough, except by saying go away and building fences and walls?

[…] Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous. We’ve got to come up with a better answer’ (206).


Megan Gurr is a Masters student in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Culture and Thought at the University of Sussex. She completed her Bachelors degree in English at Sussex, achieving First Class Hons, and spent one year of this degree at the University of Oslo. Her research interests include multicultural studies, feminist theory and migrant writings. She received her TEFL qualification in April 2020. She taught the first ever Conversation class with Conversation Over Borders and has been tutoring with the organisation ever since.

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