Spring is the third in the Seasons quartet by Ali Smith and the most experimental of the books so far. Set in today’s disorientating, chaotic times, Spring is at times both disorientating and chaotic. The most political of the three, it felt at times like the author was shouting. It left me feeling rather flat, which I didn’t expect as I am an Ali Smith fan.
The book is rather difficult to summarize, partly because so soon after reading it the story disappeared from my mind. Two story strands start off independently, inevitably merging and impacting on each other. In between are passages of social media language, phrases listed, nasty, full of bile and hatred; I can imagine Smith trawling Twitter, pencil in hand, making notes.
Richard Lease, a film producer, is contracted to make a film about Katharine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, but is struggling with the script. He holds imaginary conversations with his – professional, and sometime romantic – partner Paddy who died recently. Richard also holds conversations with an imaginary daughter. Both women test him with awkward questions about his behaviour.
Brittany is an officer at an SA4A immigrant detention centre, a predictable, challenging job in a depressing place. And then she meets Florence, a kind of wonder child. Florence is 12 years old. She achieves mythical status, of a kind with Greta Thunberg, by persuading the centre director to steam clean all the toilets. No one knows where she came from; is she a detainee, did she blag her way into the building? Brit and Florence go on a road trip to Scotland where they meet Richard Lease and Alda, driver of a coffee van, possibly member of an underground movement to rescue detainees from immigrant detention centres, possibly Florence’s mother. These four key characters meet in Edinburgh and agree to go to Culloden.
I was left feeling that Smith’s political message would be stronger if it wasn’t so confusing. She vents her anger and the words on the page read as if they poured from her mind without sub-editing. This interrupts the flow of Richard and Brittany’s stories, taking my mind off the page and away from the book. I didn’t feel close to any of the characters and consequently didn’t care about them.
Ali Smith is one of the freshest, experimental voices we have today; reading one of her novels is not an easy read for the beach, they need concentration. So I will re-read Spring and hope for a smoother read. I await Summer, wondering if it will bring enlightenment on Spring’s storyline but not expecting it. To date, each novel is completely independent of each other. The only context for calling it a quartet are the titles, the seasonal themes. It is a difficult thing Smith is doing with this quartet; writing about a country in the process of cataclysmic political change – the anger, the depression, the fear – and writing quickly without the usual gap of years between writing and publication which allow a book to mellow. For me, Spring does not quite work. But I do love the Hockney cover art.
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