‘Surprise. Happy new year. Everything impossible is possible.’
by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton
Spring, by Ali Smith, resembles the eponymous season, with its wealth of fluctuations. There are storms and blasts of icy wind—especially in Smith’s depiction of the plight of refugees, and her descriptions of grief—but they’re countered by flashes of light, promises of renewal, even revolution.
The surprise is that Smith’s message is optimism. It’s flagged early, in this passage that nods to Dylan Thomas: ‘Or picture a crocus in snow. See the ring of the thaw round the crocus? That’s the door open into the earth. I’m the green in the bulb and the moment of split in the seed, the unfurl of the petal, the dabber of ends of the branches of trees with the green as if the green is alight.’
Spring is a treasure hunt, a symphony of voices and references. Smith’s writing is as vivid and playful as ever, turning every conversation into a Quickstep. This season’s Shakespearean touchstone is Pericles, with its themes of refugees, sex trafficking, rebirth, reconciliation, and purity. The artist referenced is Tacita Dean, particularly her 2018 Royal Academy exhibition, Landscape, featuring mountains and clouds—the former, massive, engulfing, oppressing, the latter allowing room to breathe. The Cloud is also where we store our data and memories online, and the internet is another point of reference at the start of each section.
Other references include Katherine Mansfield, Ranier Maria Rilke, and Charlie Chaplin; there’s a scene where refugees watch one of his films that will remind some of a key moment in Sullivan’s Travels. Here, too, are claustrophobic mash-ups of racist social media vitriol, or the worst platitudes of the internet leviathans consuming our data like krill, pretending all the while that it’s for our own good.
There’s also a fairy tale about a village’s annual virgin sacrifice that ends on a triumphant note when a young woman defiantly takes matters into her own hands—and young people taking action is another strong theme throughout the novel.
Like Pericles, Spring begins with love and loss. Seventy-year-old Richard Lease mourns the death of his glamorous, wise friend, screenwriter Patricia (Paddy) Heal, by recalling their final meetings, scrolling back and forth through their long, shared history.
Succumbing to grief and desperation, with only their imaginary child for company—his actual daughter has been incommunicado for decades—he skips out on a directing job, heading north to Scotland in search of mountains. The film was to be an adaptation of the novel April, a character-driven meditation about Mansfield and Rilke when both were near the ends of their lives. The novel riffs on the idea that these literary luminaries overlapped without meeting in the Swiss mountains in 1922. But the screenwriter, a young, thrusting type, insists on writing sex scenes between the dying authors.
Part Two introduces Brittany, a DCO [Detainee Custody Officer] in a UK IRC [purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre with a prison design]. She works for security firm SA4A, which has appeared before. Through her compassionate but pragmatic eyes we witness the inhumane conditions Britain considers suitable for refugees. It’s a shaming and disturbing litany, but one of the most devastating details is a quiet aside: ‘. . there was generally paracetamol available for the Kurdish deet on the wing with cancer unless it was the weekend . . . in which case he’d have to wait like everybody else for Monday.’
The IRC’s abuzz with rumours about a young girl who breezed past security to berate the governor about sanitation, ordering him to have all the toilets cleaned. Brittany discovers it’s true, and what’s more, if rumours are to be believed, the girl also walked into a knocking shop preaching chastity and emerged unscathed.
That girl is sassy, savvy 12-year-old, Florence Smith, one of many quasi-magical creatures cropping up in Ali Smith’s work. It can’t be a coincidence that Florence is the home of Botticelli’s Primavera. And Florence, like the goddess Persephone, comes and goes from underworlds unscathed, longing to be reunited with her mother. As if hypnotised (the excuse she’ll give her boss, later), Brittany joins Florence on a train journey to Kingussie.
Florence is good; she ‘makes people behave like they should, or like they live in a different better world.’ She’s our hope for the future, clinging to her integrity, keeping her personal details close, so no one else can tell her story. As Paddy has told Richard, and Smith has often said in interviews, the question of who controls the narrative is significant. Florence intends on taking control of more besides, promising that when the her generation gets its plans mobilised they will change everything.
Spring is also dusted with stories of battles, but rather than bloodshed, focuses on combatants who chose to lay down their weapons, who chose forgiveness and reconciliation. Is she overly optimistic? If so, this is the season for it. She explains that before the Gregorian calendar, March was the start of a new year. ‘To celebrate both the vernal equinox with its tilt to the North towards the sun again, and the Feast of the Annunciation. . . . Surprise. Happy new year. Everything impossible is possible.’
All the characters converge in Scotland, where Florence saves Richard’s life, instilling him with fresh hope. They meet Alda, a member of the Auld Alliance network, functioning as an Underground Railroad for refugees, ‘disappearing people from a system that’s already disappeared them.’ This reignites Richard’s enthusiasm, inspiring a documentary telling the stories of the dispossessed.
In closing, Smith circles back to vernal images, and to April: ‘Pass any flowering bush or tree and you can’t not hear it, the buzz of the engine, the new life already at work in it, time’s factory.’
Spring by Ali Smith is published by Hamish Hamilton, priced £16.99