The Fresh Connection…………
Spring by Ali Smith
……… Spring is the third book in Ali Smith’s ‘Four Seasons quartet. Starting with ‘Autumn’ back in 2016, in the aftermath of the cataclysmic Brexit referendum results, and then capturing the polarised warring factions of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ through 2017’s ‘Winter’, you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Spring’ would be a lighter book, exuding hope, with hints of good times on the horizon. But this is the chaos of the UK in 2018 and 2019 and Ali Smith brilliantly mirrors the whole fucking chaotic lunacy of the life and times of the UK at the moment. It’s a stark, despairing novel in some ways about the loss of loved ones, identify, freedom, purpose and feeling for those around us – and yet and yet, ‘Spring’ does come around to hinting that there might just be a small chink of light at end of the very dark tunnel after all!
The book focuses on Richard, a TV director whose career and life have seen better days, trying to come to terms with the recent death of his part-muse, part-lover and part-heroine Paddy, who was the scriptwriter and creative force behind his historical successes. At the same time, he’s trying to come to decide whether he should sell his soul for the chance of work on a film being scripted by the ‘next big thing’ writer, imagining a love affair between Rainer Rilke and Katherine Mansfield while both are residing in a Swiss sanitorium in the 1920’s. He knows in his heart that the script he’ll be given will be populist crap, but he’s torn between his principles and the need to earn a living. And so Richard gets on a train and heads off on a journey of mourning and soul searching, finally getting off at a remote station in Scotland. His desolation leads him to a clumsy attempt to kill himself, but he’s prevented by two recently arrived passengers at the same remote railway platform – a woman accompanied by a young girl.
The narrative then shifts in time to trace their journey to the same remote destination – this time it is Brittany a young woman who works as a warder in an Immigration Removal Centre near London and Florence, a magical child of 12 who’s previously floated seemingly at will through the detention centre and cast some form of spell over the governor focused on improving the living conditions of the detainees. The spell seems to then transfer to Brittany and of course subsequently to Richard.
'I’ve been thinking about them in my head for 20 years, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over those 20 years,... it’s that the book already exists and we have to come out to meet it and excavate it and deliver it'
…………..Ali Smith talking about the ‘Four Seasons’ novels in an interview in The Guardian in March 2019
The parts of the book about Florence and the hints of magic might sound a bit too flighty and bizarre as I’ve described them above but it’s done with such a straightforward, disarming style and candour that they work brilliantly. Partly this is because these sections also talk about the conditions for immigration detainees in the UK – that’s partly focused on the centres we hold them in but it’s also focused on the context they live in – they’ve come here for help and support and end up in a stateless, rootless existence, shot through with a disdain, cruelty and apathy from government and detention authorities alike. You can’t help but be seriously shamed and angry as you read this stuff and that emotion cleverly counter balances any scepticism someone might me might have had for the magic realism feel of it.
Along the way, ‘Spring’ also takes a hefty swipe at the whole post-Brexit debacle. We’re a country in the UK that’s lost our sense of ourselves and our values, and Ali Smith lays it bare in this novel. Brittany and her fellow warders have all the tropes and clichés of mild ‘on the verge of racist’ which characterises so much of the right-wing shit you hear talked in our country at the moment. And while she couldn’t have known it at the time – unless Ali Smith is seriously prescient(!) – but the narrative of Richard’s dilemma being torn between principles and being aligned with the ‘next big thing’ just reminded me of the fucking charlatan we’ve ended up with in Downing Street as our Prime Minister – though I doubt Johnson’s soul searching lasted much more than a nano-second whereas Richard’s grief and values are strong emotions and powerful weights pulling him away from populism. It’s a novel that wears its heart very much on its sleeve – it’s anger, despair and worry at the mess we are in is bluntly set out in the novel. At one point when Richard recalls a discussion he had with Paddy before her death…..
‘Common wealth’ she said. ‘What a lie….. what’s happened to all the good people of this country?’
‘Compassion fatigue,’ said Richard
‘Fuck compassion fatigue’ she said. ‘That’s people walking about with dead souls’
‘Racism’ Richard said. ‘Legitimized. Legitimized 24/7 on all the news and in all the papers…..’
‘I know people are divided’ she said. ‘People always were. But people weren’t, and aren’t, unfair. Even British racism used to give way when it came to unfairness’
From Spring by Ali Smith
Yet although this is a blunt and stark novel, it’s also multi-layered and complex. There are clever and accurate portrayals of the media and its manipulation for political ends, of the crudity and sinister underbelly that comes out from its hiding place on social media, and of the clever ways we use language to dress up and cover up (that Immigration Detention Centre where Brit works isn’t a ‘prison’ – just a ‘prison by design’!). And as with her other books her characters and their relationships are complicated and contradictory at times.
So ‘Spring’ is in many ways, a dark and bleak book chronicling a United Kingdom at war with itself and losing touch with its humanity. In some respects, the book seems to reflect ‘Spring’ in terms of the times we live in more than ‘Spring’ in terms of time of the year in nature. And yet there is blossoming, warmth, beauty and eventually hope in the novel. The novel opens in January, with the crocus in the snow, peering and pushing through the earth as winter starts to thaw. It ends in April ‘the anarchic, the final month, of Spring, the great connective, with its flowering of new life and the first signs of summer. And in between this is a terrific, wonderful, novel and for me. It rants, rages, shakes it fist and howls at the moon in places, but throughout it’s thoughful and thought-provoking, caustic and funny, and for me, by some distance, Spring is the best of the ‘Four Seasons’ novels so far. Can’t wait for ‘Summer’ in 2020!
‘Spring’ by Ali Smith was published by Hamish Hamilton earlier this year. I bought my copy with my own hard-earned dosh and was lucky enough to now only get Ali Smith’s signature on my copy, but it’s entirely legible too! As you would expect with a much anticipated and much-loved writer like Ali Smith, there’s no shortage of reviews and information about ‘Spring’ and the other ‘Four Seasons’ novels out there. The general sense I get from them is that professional reviewers for the press seem to have been universally impressed by ‘Spring’ – on the ‘blogosphere’ the reviews are a bit more mixed. And rather than send you to one that takes a different view to me, in the best traditions of persuasion, I’d suggest having a look at the review of the novel here on the Bookmark blog – and as that is the official blog of the Blairgowrie Book Festival and as they loved it as much as I did, then this just proves that my review must be spot on after all!