My rating: 4 stars
The third stand-alone novel in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet suits its title. Spring, just as the season it is named after, is a book about the need for new beginnings and being hopeful even when facing a dire situation. References to Brexit, Trump and the downsides of social media are spread throughout the book, making it not only a pertinent story for the times we live in, but also an important record for those who will read it in the future.
Spring is written in the third person mostly from two different points of view, those of Richard and Brittany, who end up meeting at a train station in the north of Scotland. Richard Lease is a TV and film director who is struggling emotionally, which is conveyed via a suggestive erratic type of narration when he is introduced. The woman he loved, Paddy, has recently died. He remembers her with immense and poignant admiration.
Richard visited Paddy not long before she passed away. Although she was already ill, they discussed his next project. He was working on an adaptation of a book, set in 1922, about the fictional relationship between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, two authors who never truly met. Richard didn’t like the script nor the book, but his visit to Paddy, with whom he had worked in the past, inspired him to suggest some changes to the adaptation, which are swiftly ignored.
Paddy’s death is not the only reason why Richard feels so lost. He had been married 30 years before, but his wife left the country and took their young child with her. For a while he was deeply depressed. It was Paddy who helped him by suggesting that he should attempt to go out and imagine that his daughter was with him. That’s why he keeps mentioning an imaginary daughter.
Brittany Hall is a completely different character from Richard and, thus, the novel comprises two very distinctive voices, whose alternation doesn’t need to be identified in order to be perceptible. She is a detainee custody officer at an Immigrant Removal Centre. Her conduct is shaped by those around her. The portrayal of her work is used to criticise how immigrants and refugees are treated and the appalling living conditions there. Once, while going to work, Brittany meets Florence, an intriguing 12-year-old girl, and they end up travelling to Scotland.
Ali Smith’s literary choices make Spring a perfect written record of the crazy times we live in. The lack of punctuation and the different font sizes used on the first pages of the book are great at conveying the screaming and cacophony that characterise today’s public discussion. The novel also touches on how unhelpful it is to turn complex issues into catchy, empty slogans on social media, on the constant lying by those in power, and on the desire to appeal to the most basic instincts without any regard for facts. We are turning people into enemies by adhering to a good versus evil narrative that is rarely that simple.
The downsides of social media and their perilous effects on society are perfectly summed up midway through the book.
“We want you not to associate us with lynch mobs, witchhunts or purges unless they’re your lynch mobs, witchhunts and purges.
We want your pasts and your presents because we want your futures too.
We want all of you.”
The way the narrative is structured arouses readers’ curiosity. The book goes back and forward in time, not only mimicking Richard’s state of mind, but also leaving us intrigued about Florence, whom I wish we had been given more details about. Though her part in the story is thought-provoking, it occasionally feels too far-fetched, since it wasn’t as explored as it could have been.
The words in Spring are painstakingly shaped and combined to convey the personalities and backgrounds of mainly Richard and Brittany. But they also paint a noteworthy picture of our times.