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Posted on 6 Jun 2019 in Fiction |

ALI SMITH Spring. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson

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Ali Smith’s latest novel is erudite, political, and full of riches.

This is the third novel in Ali Smith’s sequence based on the seasons: Autumn, Winter, and now Spring. It is much darker than the first two novels, and although one could perhaps assume that growth and hope are linked to the idea of spring, Smith’s exploration of the bleak nature of today’s zeitgeist constantly reminds the reader of what is so wrong in the world. I would like to stress though, that there are a great many funny moments in this tale of a trip to a Scottish battlefield.

The novel has a simple narrative: Richard Lease, a middle-aged man, travels to Scotland by train and meets two other significant people: Brittany Hall, a custody officer from an Immigrant Removal Centre, and a young girl, Florence. They travel to Culloden, where a confrontation takes place.

Like many of Ali Smith’s narratives, this bald outline is like a Christmas tree hung with coruscating insights, wordplay, tropes and facts. Smith mentions twice in the novel that there is a difference between narrative strategy and reality, but that they are symbiotic. She certainly attempts to deal with the horrors of the times through her narratives, inserting examples of so much that is socially and politically wrong.

We learn a great deal about Richard Lease’s thoughts and feelings as he waits at a railway station and contemplates his life. He has recently lost a very dear friend, Paddy. He loved her and he owes much of his personal and professional life to her warmth and kindness. She was a witty and generous scriptwriter who worked with him on several successful TV films that he directed, and her presence throughout the novel provides a voice for life and creativity. Richard misses her enormously and he has been excluded from her funeral by her twin sons. As well, he has been offered a very necessary (he is broke) job as director on a vulgarly egregious film about the writer Katherine Mansfield and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who, it seems, were in the same Swiss town in 1922 but never met. He is dealing with both his feelings and his need to stave off the producer, who is pushing for very shallow sex scenes. Smith actually gives us some risibly impossible scenes, given that Mansfield and Rilke didn’t meet and that Katherine Mansfield was dying of TB.

Richard sees himself as a loser and is at a very low ebb. So low in fact that he needs rescuing at the railway station by Florence, the 12-year-old who has been travelling with Brittany Hall, the custody officer from the Immigrant Removal Centre run by SA4A, a private company. A company with so efficiently brutal an ethos that we can see its deadening, and indeed brutalising, effect on Brittany, although she has only been working there a short time. The scenes concerning the Centre are harrowing in their revelation of implacable but banal cruelty toward refugees.

Brittany was on her way to work when Florence accosted her and engaged her help to find her way to Kingussie. For some reason not clear to her, Brittany has stayed with the child. She finds herself enchanted by Florence’s wit and goodness. She seems to find that she is clever and witty herself, in Florence’s company:

Brittany, Florence says.

What? Brit says.

Gelf, Florence says.

What’s gelf mean? she says.

Get over yourself, Florence says.

Brit sighs.

Lucky that’s where we’re going tomorrow, then, she says.

Where? Florence says.

The place you showed me on the postcard. The gelf course, Brit says.

And you ask me why I chose you, Florence says.

Florence has a reason for wanting to get to Kingussie, which is revealed later in the story after Richard, Brittany and Florence have been driven in a van from the railway station to Culloden. They are given a lift by Alda, a representative of a covert volunteer group that is helping refugees and detainees. Alda sings and fleshes out aspects of Scottish history as they drive. Florence is definitely a force for good and is one of Ali Smith’s wise children, full of wit and kindness and, at this point of the story, anxiety, for she is hoping to meet someone who is important to her.

It is sadly moving, however, to see how Brittany is trapped by her constrained life and job. She is clever but unable to free herself. If the title Spring suggests hope, the reader is not led to see any, or not much, for her. Richard and Florence seem all right, but Brittany’ s situation is not hopeful.

This novel is so rich that trying to show its extraordinary range seems impossible. It contains multitudes: clouds, mountains, human cruelty, Charlie Chaplin, lemons, hideous treatment of refugees, Scottish history, trolls, and the utterly encompassing power of social media platforms plus, plus. Ali Smith does make the reader work. But I am not suggesting that the story of the characters is swamped by Smith’s style, erudition and political concerns; and that is because so much of the meat of Smith’s messages is explored in wonderful conversations between the characters.

In an interview given to the Paris Review 221 in 2017, Ali Smith said she thought that if you open the sensitivities of the reader early in the book, then the sensitivities of the reader are open for the rest of it.

And Smith opens this novel with a sort of prose poem that exposes the mind-set of the times. It is a truly horrible comment on politics, mainstream media and the social-media universe. It is like a text for Communication Studies 101, and begins:

Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people with power saying the truth is not the truth. What we want is elected members of parliament saying knife getting heated stuck in her front and twisted things like bring your own noose we want governing members of parliament in the house of commons shouting kill yourself at opposition members of parliament we want powerful people saying they want other powerful people chopped up in bags in my freezer we want muslim women a joke …

… and so on for three pages.

The next section is about the power and beauty of spring:

What’s warping your doors?

What’s giving your world fresh colours?

What’s the key to the song of the bird? What’s forming the beak in the egg?

What’s sending the thinnest of green shoots through that rock so the rock starts to split?

The thinnest of green shoots is, I think, what Smith is exploring in this novel. Is there the possibility of hope for the world today? Hope maybe, but not much optimism.

Ali Smith Spring Hamish Hamilton 2019 PB pp340 $29.99

Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.

You can buy Spring from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.