The protagonist, Richard Lease, is a man in crisis. Estranged from his daughter, he’s mourning the death of his friend and mentor, Paddy. Hollowed-out by grief, he gets on a train, ending up somewhere in northern Scotland.
Here his story crosses that of Brittany Hall, who works in an Immigration Removal Centre. With references from Charlie Chaplin to Shakespeare, Smith’s novel explores the haunting possibility of hope and renewal in dark times.
Credit to Smith’s prescience in writing about a powerful child just before Greta Thunberg arrived on the scene. But what a shame she’s written such a patronising approximation of a 12-year-old. It’s a pity that Brit and Florence’s strand derails Richard’s – perhaps their chance meeting and everything that comes after is supposed to feel featherweight, but that doesn’t make all the flimsy whimsy easier to indulge.
It’s arguable that Smith has earned some forbearance. But would we forgive such obvious flaws in a less beloved writer? By the same token, I might perhaps have been easier on this book if it were a debut. There’s enough quality writing to have me applauding a fine talent – but not enough to call Spring a good book.
There is a plot of sorts and there is a wide range of characters and incidents, some of them credible, though we live in a time when what should be the incredible is swallowed avidly by the credulous. Yet, though Smith is alert to the dull dishonesty of authority and its clerks, the novel’s title is not ironic. April may, as Eliot had it, be “the cruellest month,” and in April “the coldest and nastiest days of the year can happen.” Spring, Smith reminds us, is “the great connective. 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” – unless, of course, this too is fake news. Ali Smith is, I think, a life-enhancer, but you can’t be sure. You can’t really be sure of anything, can you? That’s the message that Shakespeare’s clowns so often deliver. Charlie Chaplin has a brief walk-on part in Spring.
Then there is the matter of her novels’ identities. Spring, like virtually all of its predecessors, reveals that run-on syntax, typographic wildness (varied font sizes, whimsical punctuation) and an obtrusive postmodern narrator (“Then this happened,” “let’s choose a late March day”) comfortably mix with middle-of-the-road subject matter and a cosy liberal-humanist outlook. Smith has a habit of “keeping it surreal,” in the words of one of her characters, even as she writes about the love-and-friendship tribulations suffered by poetry-spouting denizens of suburbia, medialand, and the tamer forms of bohemia... These days, a seasonal quartet can legitimately double as an elegy for seasonal quartets. But Smith would be violating her instinctive high spirits and the prevailing spirit of this silly but stubbornly likeable series if she neglected to emphasise one last time the thing we are told that hope does eternal.
[T]he third novel in Ali Smith’s projected quartet is named after the season of new life, but it’s a bleaker, darker book than its predecessors. [...] This is a novel that contains multitudes, and the wonder is that Smith folds so much in, from visionary nature writing to Twitter obscenities, in prose that is so deceptively relaxed. Jokes detonate throughout, from the bleak to the whimsical, as surprising and moving connections are revealed between all three novels. [...] For decades Smith has seemed a glorious one-off: her influence is being seen now in younger writers such as Eley Williams and Max Porter, similarly accessible experimentalists with an irrepressible love of language, but as her Seasonal Quartet moves towards completion her own role in British fiction looks ever more vital. The final page proclaims spring “the great connective”. It’s not a bad description of Smith herself.
What has happened to Britain? It’s a question that echoes through the seasonal series and reaches a perfectly pitched hymn of fury in Spring. And it’s not just Britain...
Smith is such a good writer that it’s hard to stop quoting. What’s particularly impressive is the way Spring mixes polemic and plot, creating characters we care about and never losing its madcap momentum.
Autumn and Winter shared a certain optimism familiar from Smith’s earlier works: a belief that humans can change, that love in its various forms will flourish even in the grimmest circumstances, that accidents are more often felicitous than catastrophic. Spring, though as full of Smith’s trademark puns as its companion volumes, is an altogether darker novel; as it obliquely reminds us, we’ve known for almost a century that April can be the cruellest month. The tone is set by the opening three pages, a brilliantly menacing sequence of demands made by an unnamed collective voice: “What we need is to say thinking is elite knowledge is elite… We need all that patriotic stuff… we want fury we want outrage we want words at their most emotive antisemite is good nazi is great paedo will really do it perverted foreigner illegal.” The novel goes on to offer a powerful confrontation with the atrocities that have taken place, and continue to take place, on British soil.
If there’s something a little madcap about the enterprise — from the breakneck publishing schedule to the loopy storylines replete with puns — perhaps that’s entirely appropriate. In Autumn, one character talks of “picturing the view from the inside of the eye, but precisely when the migraine is happening to it!” This seems as good a description as any of Smith’s rapid-response literary collage... Spring gives off more light than Autumn or Winter. There is an important reveal that suggests the novels may share a narrative arc. At last a shape begins to emerge. There’s pathos, too, especially in Richard’s decades-old infatuation for Paddy, his older and wiser long-time collaborator. Smith, as always, is interested in how a story is told and who gets to tell it. Still, it’s puzzling why a writer so invested in storytelling as a theme should be so uninterested in storytelling as practice. The novel trundles to a forgettable end.
The central stylistic strategy with the quartet has been collage: the intermingling of visionary scenes, streams of consciousness, comic set pieces that read like mini plays, and chorus-like interludes that channel the voices of the people, or of newspaper headlines. In Spring one of these sections, expressing the secret desires of social-media companies, is like Gertrude Stein rewritten by Twitter — “Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition” — and in these moments the novel is like a Modernist prose poem of the now... Against the backdrop of abuse and violent incarceration that is also documented in Spring, this playfulness might threaten to be flippant or twee, but only if it is read as seeking to offset rather than undermine the savageness of the horrors described elsewhere. For it is not the job of fiction to provide political solutions, as Smith knows, and if literature is utopian, it can only ever be so in an indirect way.
In this quartet Smith shies away from the traditional structure of a novel, saying there is no story. Except she has told one. Through her account of unlikely friendships, Smith brings human values to the fore. Savour it, because there is just one instalment left.
With Spring, all that concern melted away. It feels like two things are happening here. First, Smith is increasingly recognising the narrative possibilities of this new type of storytelling, finding deeper and more compelling ways of getting under the skin of her times. There’s something else, though. While reading Spring, I became suddenly aware of the extraordinary meta-novel – the year – that the quartet will form once it’s complete, and how thrilling and important that book will be. This is writing that acts by accretion, subliminally, weaving you into its webs of stories. Now that we are past the halfway mark it’s possible to perceive the shape of the whole, to recognise quite how dazzling the interplay of ideas and images between the four books will be... Like Florence Smith, her namesake, Smith is good. She has always been a profoundly moral writer, but in this series of novels she is doing something more than merely anatomising the iniquities of her age. She’s lighting us a path out of the nightmarish now.
The previous two books in the series also brought together fragments of other stories, not only written, but painted, sculpted and sung. Barbara Hepworth, Shakespeare and cheesy Christmas singles mingled with Dickens, Cornish myth and political protest songs in Winter, a country house drama about an old woman and a ghostly child. Autumn, with its gloriously pagan response to Brexit Britain, also revolved around an elderly person and a little girl, with elements of wild nature threatening to take over at every turn. This theme of innocence and experience continues in Spring... Despite the stark indictment of humanity’s evils that this bubbling, babbling brook of a book contains, the real story is the eternal, deep pulse of nature doing its thing, oblivious to our sordid ways. Nature, in Smith’s hands, is a strange sort of mother, as are all the other women in Spring: unsentimental, wise, foul-mouthed and kind. Not unlike their creator. She tells stories in a voice you can’t help but listen to.