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Ali Smith: Spring

This is the third book in Ali Smith’s seasonal tetralogy. Like the first two, Brexit hovers around in the background and we get a host of other topical issues, many of which will mean little to people outside the UK, such as the closing-down of the Maplins electronic chain, the Windrush scandal and the Grenfell Tower disaster, which have presumably been carefully selected by Smith to show a) the wide-reaching effect of Brexit (which includes both an anti-immigration and anti-immigrant stance prevalent in the UK, including with the government, and economic hard times, and also the general deterioration of social support in recent times).

The book is in two parts, i,e. there are two stories, though as in in all good two-story novels, they will merge, in this case in the unlikely spot of Kingussie in Scotland.

Our hero in the first story is Richard Lease. He is a successful TV director and owes at least part of his success to Patricia (Paddy) Neal, an Irish scriptwriter who has worked with Lease on many successful TV productions, including those of a controversial nature and political nature, covering issues such as the Irish Troubles and the Holocaust. Both Paddy and Richard are divorced. Paddy has two adult male twins. We learn nothing of her ex-husband. Richard’s wife left him, and she and their daughter went to another country. Richard has seen neither since.

Though Paddy and Richard did have sex once, their relationship has essentially been one of a close older sister/younger brother (Paddy is much older than Richard). If either had actual opposite sex siblings we do not know about it, though Paddy had sisters, at least one of whom died as a teenager. The others are mentioned only in passing.

Richard turns to Paddy as his older sister for advice on many things: literature, art, script-writing and, in particular, life. When his wife and daughter leave him, she tells him to create an imaginary daughter and do things with her. He does and he goes to the cinema and art galleries with the imaginary daughter and continues to talk to her. However, the imaginary daughter remains eleven, the same age as his real daughter when she left, and never grows up.

Two major things happen early on in the story. The first is that Paddy dies of cancer. Richard is naturally devastated and his previous relationship with her is described subsequently. The situation is not helped by the fact that he has does not have a good relationship with her sons.

He is also working on a new project – his first for four years. Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke both visited the same hotel in Switzerland at the same time, Château Bellevue (now the town hall). They did not know one another and there is no evidence that they communicated with one another. She was dying of tuberculosis and would die not long after. He stayed there while his nearby house was being renovated and continued to visit for meals even after the restoration.

There is no evidence that they met or, indeed, had any communication or even knew of each other’s existence. However, the scriptwriter for the project – the interestingly named Martin Terp – has other ideas. Terp has a reputation for being flamboyant. The book on which the story is based, called April, is very low key and does not have them meeting. Terp not only has them meeting but has them jumping into bed together, despite the fact that Mansfield is dying of tuberculosis. When Richard discusses the idea with Paddy, soon before she dies, she shares Richard’s horror about the project, not least as she is a keen reader of both Mansfield and Rilke.

This all background but we learn early on that Richard, somewhat in distress about the project but, more particularly about Paddy’s death, fails to turn up to a scheduled meeting with Terp and heads off North, getting off, at course, at Kingussie.

The second story involves Brittany Hall. She could not afford to go to university (another theme in this and other Smith novels, is the effects of the austerity measures of the Cameron/May Conservative government on ordinary people) so she has ended up as a DCO in an IRC working for SA4A (a contracted-out security company), whom we have already met in the earlier Winter, where Arthur works for them. We learn later that DCO is Detainee Custody Officer and IRC is Immigration Removal Centre. She does not particularly like it but manages. One of the key themes of this book is the treatment of refugees by the British government in contracted-out facilities like this one.

When we first meet her, we learn that a girl had managed to gain access to the facility – no-one knows how – and perhaps even more miraculously confronted the director and got him to have the toilets properly cleaned, something that had never happened before. Some time later, Britt is accosted by a girl as she is going into work. The girl asks her strange questions. In particular, she shows her an old postcard of Kingussie and asks her how to get there. (Smith loves her little running themes and postcards are one of them in this book.). She suggests that she Google it but the girl does not want to. They eventually work out that you can get a train there from King’s Cross station and the girl sets off on her own. Britt, guessing that she is the girl who got the toilets cleaned, follows her.

We follow their journey and the strange effect that Florence, the name of the girl, seems to have on people. As they are going to Kingussie and, we know, Richard is there, we guess that this is where the two stories might meet though everything else that follows is entirely unpredictable, except, of course, that Richard will be a changed man.

I have mentioned postcards as one of Smith’s running themes in this book. Another is clouds. In her previous books, women artists have featured strongly: Barbara Hepworth and Ethel Walker in Winter and Pauline Boty in Autumn. In this book, it is Tacita Dean and, in particular, her Montafon Letter, 2017, though also her interest in clouds is discussed.

All this is to show how rich this novel is. As well as a clever story (or, rather, two clever stories that merge), Smith has room to discuss art, literature, TV scriptwriting and a whole range of political issues though, in particular, the contentious issue of the treatment of refugees in the UK. She does, naturally, deal with other issues – grief at loss, dumbing down, poverty, feminism, Brexit and many more.

This really is another superb novel from Smith and one that confirms her as one of the leading, living UK novelists, if not the leading one.

Publishing history

First published 2019 by Hamish Hamilton