In one of the opening chapters of Spring, a character greets another by asking “how are you doing, apart from the end of liberal capitalist democracy?” It seems like an incongruous way to frame a novel about spring; the season, after all, is vested with relentlessly positive clichés. We strong-arm spring with narratives to validate our own desperately-needed visions of renewal: from the barrenness of winter, we find absolution in the emergence of flowers, fresh dew, and forthcoming hay fever. You have to wonder whether we’re talking about the weather or ourselves.
Ali Smith’s Spring, the third installment in the novelist’s seasonal quartet, is somewhat about the weather but mostly about us. Like the previous novels in the series, Spring is steeped in contemporary politics. Vestiges of the Brexit vote that framed Autumn and the post-truth Trumpian state of Winter fold into Spring, which wrings out the messy, inhumane state of our world to look at humanity at its most vulnerable. The new novel responds to the current refugee crisis, specifically the thousands of people regularly detained in the United Kingdom’s “Immigration Removal Centres” (IRCs).
There are three main characters in Spring: Richard Lease, a television director who last enjoyed popular relevancy in the ’70s; Brittany Hall, a twenty-something who works at an Immigration Removal Centre just outside London. They are brought together by Florence, a 12-year-old schoolgirl.
Richard is grieving the recent death of his closest friend and collaborator, while half-heartedly working on a new script for a television show about writers Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke. Brittany feels dead, bored, and boring, her life reduced to the sum of the convenient abbreviations that subdue the violence of her work. Deets are detainees; DCO, detention custody officer; SA4A, the faceless security firm that employs her. That she goes by Brit for most of the novel should not be lost on the reader – for Smith, the underlying, unspoken character of all novels in her seasonal series is modern-day Britain. The subtext is clear: the nation, much like SA4A officer Brittany Hall, is gripped by its unending complicity in everyday violence, but too tired and self-involved to really be spurred into action.
The aptly-named Florence arrives like an unruly, stubborn growing shoot in both Richard and Brit’s lives, offering them both a respite from themselves and a faint sense of hope. This is spring, after all. Her arrival is saviour-like, whispered about among Brit’s colleagues with an awed, hushed wonder – a schoolgirl waltzes into a highly guarded immigration removal centre, walks straight into the head office, and somehow convinces a gruff, small-minded bureaucrat to properly clean the toilets. While the other characters in Spring coil into themselves either out of cowardice, lack of imagination or just the deadening unfeeling that comes with living in the end-times of Western liberal capitalism as we know it, Florence takes them outside of their own lives, and makes them grow.
Smith is aware of how biblical this sounds. This is part of the point; Florence is, Brit observes, “what’s the word? Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life any more… good.” While Winter had an almost claustrophobic, insular feel, telling the story of internal familial dysfunction under one roof, Spring breaks out of this isolation to deliver a delayed wintertime tale of Christ-like redemption by stressing the interconnectedness of all people and things. It is a message that fits the novel’s commentary on national borders and the inhumane indignities of detention centres. That it takes a 12-year-old girl to clarify how obvious this evil is, and how embarrassing it is that it is carried out daily in our names, is both a clarion call and source of shame.
Spring, like much of Ali Smith’s work, is so full of other scintillating tangents and asides that a standard review could not possibly do justice (to call them “tangents” and “asides” also undermines the underlying message of the novel, which is that our world is constantly brought together by happy accidents, things that we see as separate are often linked, and that discussions of “difference” can be a narcissistic distraction from the truth that we are small things living together in a greater thing). There are thinly-veiled takedowns against Facebook and its own blinkered quest to ‘connect’ the world, as well the BBC drama Bodyguard and its heady self-involved dramatism and depiction of Muslim women. There is even a small mediation on Noname’s song, “Self.” And finally there is, as with all novels in Smith’s seasonal quartet thus far, a tribute to an artist who brings the novel together: in Spring, it is British visual artist Tacita Dean.
One particular work is discussed at length in Spring is Tacita Dean’s A Bag of Air, a 3-minute short film in which the artist ascends the sky in a hot air balloon in Bourges, a town in France famed for being the capital of alchemy. Dean had always dreamed of catching a cloud as a child, but unfortunately that morning the sky was clear. She ended up with a bag of misty, clean air. But in the skies of Bourges, site of ancient alchemy, this bag of air acquired a greater significance. The alchemists who lived in Bourges hundreds of years earlier saw clean air as the site of a wholeness and earthly unity: a mystical element that could heal all ailments, resolve all earthly disharmonies. It is a fitting partner to Spring, a novel that by no means purports to heal us, but at least shake us out of ourselves so that we can try.
Spring by Ali Smith
Pantheon (Random House)
Published April 30, 2019