Rating 3 stars
The third installment in Ali Smith’s seasons quartet, Spring, begins with Spring herself addressing the reader in all her rude vitality. I’ve been waiting to read this novel since I finished reading Winter, and also worrying about how Smith could possibly maintain the standard set in the first two books in the sequence. I enjoyed it very much. It has a different tone to the previous two books, slightly weary at times, but the central thrust of the story is beautiful.
The novel is divided into three sections. In the first, we meet a TV director who is having a crisis. His best friend has passed away and the programme he is working on is a codswallopping melange of awful in the hands of a writer who believes the stuff you can make up is better than reality. We meet the director, Richard, on a train station in Scotland where he has run away, leaving his mobile in a cup in a bin in a London railway station. We learn, through flashbacks, that Richard has not had a particularly happy life, that his newly dead friend Paddy was the light of his life, and that he relied on her too much for his creative ideas as a director. I liked Paddy. I wish there had been more of her and less of Richard. Richard is just another man in a novel, neither engaging nor beguiling.
The basis of the programme he is making is that Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke stayed in the same Swiss hotel in 1922. In the book from which the show is being adapted, they never meet but instead live parallel lives. The book’s hook is that this sort of coincidence is tantalising in its lack of consummation. What if the two had met? The writer of the TV show decides it would be better if they did, more emotionally satisfying, and turns it into a bonkfest.
No wonder Richard is at the end of his tether, and all the more so because Mansfield was a favourite of Paddy’s, and in going along with the rewrite, Richard is sort of trampling on his friend.
Interlaced with this source of stress in Richard’s life and his grief at losing his friend, we learn that Richard has a daughter, from whom he is estranged. We don’t know why his marriage broke down, just that his wife left him, taking their child and leaving the country. And so Richard created an imaginary daughter, whom he takes to cultural events and who sends postcards to Paddy while she is alive, and who later is the receptacle for Richard’s worries and confusions about the modern world.
One of the cultural events Richard takes his imaginary daughter to is an exhibition of paintings by Tacita Dean. In keeping with Pauline Boty in Autumn and Barbara Hepworth in Winter, Dean is the artist for this book, and her images of clouds the connecting thread within Spring. This is an example of Smith taking something that was in the news at the time she was thinking about, planning, maybe even beginning to write this book, that I remember reading about and being intrigued by, and bringing it back to memory through the novel. There’s another example further into the book, too.
Paddy is the one who talks about the common thread through the three novels so far: Brexit. She also adds Grenfell Tower to the mix, along with Trump, the migrant crisis, climate change and everything else that is simultaneously paralysing and aggravating about the world at the present time. Paddy is livid about it all. But she’s dying and her children stop her from talking about it. It’s only when Richard visits that Paddy gets to express her feelings. As well, and sadly coming back into focus as a result of Brexit, Paddy thinks a lot about The Troubles. It was a terrible coincidence that I started to read Spring a matter of days after the Northern Ireland journalist Lyra McKee was killed during riots in Derry. That there’s a suggestion that the rioting was exacerbated because of the presence of a BBC documentary team, true or not, fits with the point Smith is making in Spring – that the facts are too mundane for some and the truth is bent or altered or manipulated for ulterior motives, to sway people to make a certain choice or draw a certain conclusion, that we are all being played by a handful of people out to make money and derail society in the process.
The second section opens with a statement of intent from the social media platforms we’re all hooked into now that is all the more menacing because of its Disney tone of voice. The action then moves to an Immigration Removal Centre. Here we meet Brittany, a DCO at the centre, one of the officers whose job it is to do whatever it is that’s done to people who have left their own country to make a new life in Britain but not done it in a manner the Home Office approves of. It’s bleak reading. The experience is dehumanising for all concerned. The detainees (or Deets as Brittany and her colleagues refer to them) are treated as sub-human, with no concern for who they are as individuals. The DCOs in treating the detainees the way they do become desensitised to them as people, and become a different kind of sub-human. Their black humour, developed at first as a defence against what is expected of them, becomes the norm and is anything but funny. Smith brings out the humanity in the people incarcerated in the Centre, treading a fine line between patronising and capturing the way people for whom English isn’t their first language translate their thoughts and feelings into the tongue of the place they find themselves. More than anything, Smith captures the endless waiting. The detainees waiting for daylight, for resolution, for answers. The DCOs waiting for something to kick off to make the time go faster until they can clock off.
And then Brittany meets Florence, a 12-year old girl who has somehow made her way past security and spoken to the governor of the IRC, with the result that everywhere has been deep cleaned. Florence is intelligent, but better than that, she’s curious about the world and how it works. She has opinions about the place Brittany works for reasons she only hints at. She is also in possession of a postcard that shows the same place in Scotland that Richard ran away to. Somehow she influences Brittany to accompany her to the postcard place.
Along the way, Brittany attempts to find out who Florence is, but Florence reveals little. Of that little, the most important is that she wants to travel with no footprint. She has no intention of joining herself to the machine, to the network of observers who opened this section with their menacing declaration of concern about us all. She wants to give as little of herself up to other people so that she continues being herself.
Along the way, they also encounter strange moments of invisibility to people in positions of authority and spend the night free of charge in a hotel in Edinburgh. Florence claims not to be doing anything, but it’s clear from the bewilderment on the faces of those who should be challenging the pair in some way, or at least demanding money in payment for services, that Florence is able to influence the normal manner of things to her advantage.
Along the way, too, Brittany realises that she feels like a new person thanks to her conversations with Florence and her rebellion against the machine in which she is a cog.
When they reach the postcard town, they encounter Richard at the station and Florence reveals why she was so keen to get to this place – she needs to go to the library. Fortunately, this unexpected trio meets one of the town’s librarians.
The start of section three is a screed of hatred composed in the manner of online invective, full of death threats and rape threats. The sort of racist, misogynistic bile that seems to be spewed more freely in this Trumpian Brexitious world. It was unpleasant to read.
The story turns to the librarian from the postcard town driving the three accidental co-travellers in her coffee van past the site of the battle of Culloden and filling them in on the history of the Clearances. This is the second example of Smith reminding me about something I was momentarily aware of last year. The Clearances are something I remember being reported on in the press because of a new history that came out around the time Smith would have been planning if not writing Spring. I added a bunch of books to my library wishlist at the time. Maybe I should reserve one to read soon.
In the coffee van, the conversation flows around different subjects, but Richard is distracted by a song on the radio and conjures back Paddy. In conjuring her, he realises that love is a matter of hopeful travel against deeply troubling odds, and that he loved her most because he was always travelling hopefully towards her. That captured me because, even if what Richard feels is unrequited love, the truth of it still holds, and love only dies when the deeply troubling odds overwhelm the hope.
Smith uses Richard’s distraction in his reverie to make a serious point about the world always being a place of exploitation, of the weak always being used up to further enrich the powerful. She doesn’t say it in so many words, but I take the point she makes to be an analogy for the way in which social media was used to manipulate people, to tell them lies about a particular choice (Trump, Brexit) making the world a better place, for the benefit of the already powerful screwing us over and doubling down on getting more power. We the electorate, Smith says to me, are as expendable as the children hammering dead batteries to extract metals, poisoning themselves in the process.
Smith taught me something, too. Slogan has its roots in a Gaelic word meaning war cry. Every slogan we ever hear is a declaration of war. Slogans are often nonsense words strung together and spoken with conviction in a way that robs us of our own conviction. Take back control. Leave means leave. Make America great again.
The story has two endings. In one, the reason for Florence’s flight up to Scotland is revealed. In the other, Richard gets a resolution. His old life ended when he met Florence at the train station. She opened up an afterlife for him that becomes his new life. Here, it seems to me, Smith is saying we don’t have to have just one life. We can have what Paddy describes to Richard as unexpected afterlives. Life doesn’t necessarily go the way we plan it, but the important thing is to keep going.
I would have liked the book to end with Richard havering over a decision, but Smith wanted to tie up Brittany’s loose ends as well. I didn’t find it necessary to know what Brittany did next or what role she played in the events following the van trip to Culloden. She wasn’t the focus of the story for me, but was instead a bit player. It was the almost but not quite there characters of Paddy and Florence who mattered more to me.
Autumn is still my favourite of the quartet so far. Winter dipped a little bit. Spring has dipped some more. I wonder what Smith’s Summer will bring. Brexit is dragging on, extended until my birthday, so the fallout of having left isn’t an option. Perhaps the striking school children and Extinction Rebellion will come to the fore. And who will the artist be? Time will tell.
Have you read any of the quartet? What do you make of the story so far?