Book Review: Spring

Spring‘, the third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels depicting aspects of life in contemporary Britain, is as literarily clever and determined to challenge as either of its two predecessors. There’s a real sense at the end of this one that Smith is just getting into her stride with her endeavour, as indeed she’ll need to if ‘Summer’ is both to improve on this confident, magisterial and appropriately angry work as well as to tie the themes of the quartet up into a coherent, cyclical whole.

Spring, the season of new life and new beginnings – and, of course, new hope. Here we have two linked stories – a literary-inspired one featuring Richard, an ageing TV director facing up to the death of Paddy, his confidante and occasional scriptwriter; and a contemporary one featuring Brit(tany), a detainee custody officer in an immigration removal centre, and a precocious child named Florence whose powers of persuasion prompt Brit to do some detective work of her own (and in her own self-interest) following an incident which had passed into legend at her IRC. Both stories, both halves of the novel, are brought together in Kingussie, in the Scottish highlands, in which Gàidhlig and the use of language features alongside reflections on the clearances which encouraged waves of migration out of Scotland (from where refugees moved into Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others).

Readers familiar with the series will quickly recognise the repetition of the approaches and themes that Smith has adopted in the other two novels so far: there are literary allusions to Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels, to which Smith here add some TS Eliot and some Shelley; there is again a love of Charlie Chaplin brought to the characters inhabiting each novel by one who figures in them all; there are stunning word plays (Andy Hoffnung is a TV play of Richard’s and Paddy’s about the Holocaust while an die Hoffnung (‘dedicated to hope’) is the theme uniting the two stories (vivunt spe) as well as allowing the ghost of fascism to unite the history and the contemporary); the Auld Alliance is the name not just of a B&B in Kingussie but a historic way of France and Scotland dealing with growing over-mighty English nationalism as well as the name of an essential character (while Kingussie itself is a word play); a woman artist (here, Tacita Dean) acts as a prompt for reflections on the contribution of art and artists in helping us interpret and understand our society and whose work underpins one of the themes of the novel (clouds); there is a vignette of an encounter with jobsworth officialdom in the guise of transport police (here not as comical as in the set-piece counters in the previous two volumes, and briefer, but amusing nonetheless); and there is repeated interest in the ability of outsiders to engage in word play and promote the use of language rather better than domestic characters, with an interesting comment on relationships at a time when Britain is re-examining its own relationships with Europe and the rest of the world.

The railway is both an actual thing in itself, carrying the characters to their destination, as well as a metaphor for something happening in the novel. Postcards – scenes in and out of life – are again a key prompt for the action. And, of course, the shadowy SA4A organisation again makes an appearance – here rather more overtly than hitherto since it runs the IRC in which Brittany works (and in which the corruption of her own innocence against her better nature by becoming a part of the ‘machine’) is a source of shame just as much as IRCs are themselves). Furthermore, jokey references to contemporary slogans of political life not only convey significances which drip with meaning and with acerbic, mocking humour, they also call to mind that this is Smith’s own latterday version of Dickens’s ability to write quickly, in serialisation form for immediate publication, with both acting as chronicler and social and moral critic of the injustices of the times in which they live. It is no accident that Smith draws heavily here on her own work with refugees.

This is an intelligent, confident novel, one not afraid to show its learning even if the touch is sometimes a little heavy, from one of Britain’s premier wordSmiths which shows signs of a tighter plotting than the weaknesses which somewhat marred its predecessor. Indeed, the one plot weakness here can be explained in terms of the novel’s recurring theme of hope: that the hope of a moment’s reconciliation can prompt the taking of apparently outlandish risks. Furthermore, the anger at what British society is allowing itself to become – at the frog failing to notice the steady increase in the temperature of the water in which it believes it is swimming while actually it is being cooked – is here conveyed in soliloquies which are more direct, more acute and (even) more passionate than before.

Smith’s over-riding theme in this series, aided by the non-linear approach to her narratives, is the circularity of all things – that, just as much as seasons come and go, and the natural world is prompted by the passing of time, the politics of human existence sees both familiarity and renewal in the repetition of events. There are not necessarily happy endings but, with each fresh awakening ought to come a more ‘woke’ experience alongside, it is to be hoped, a little more learning and a little more ability to be a little cleverer than before as each cycle comes round again in which we need to recognise what we can learn from older people while passing the baton to the young, the precocious, the dynamic and the idealistic.

In the meantime, roll on Summer.

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