Saturday 27 April 2019


Spring by Ali Smith  {Reviewed by STELLA}
Beginning with a tirade of exclamatory statements, Spring opens with a hammering of words that are explosive and nonsensical, but, unfortunately, messages that have made sense to many and have swayed ordinary people into populist and damaging thinking - exclamations that play on fear, isolation and frustration. The third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, Spring brings us the promise of something even better than Autumn and Winter. At the end of Winter, I wondered where Ali Smith would take this quartet, and Spring does not disappoint. In each volume of the quartet, the protagonist is seeking something within themselves, as well as from their contemporary landscape of Brexit, while also drawing on their own and the collective history. In Spring, a man stands on the train platform of a remote Scottish town. Richard Lease, a film director, is mourning the death of his close friend and collaborator, scriptwriter Paddy Heal. Standing on the edge of the platform waiting for the train, he unravels his life and relationship with Paddy, their work and her humanity. The last project, which hadn't progressed beyond concept but now has a new (and in Richard’s eyes, an unworthy) scriptwriter, is a fictional account of the meeting of Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke at a hotel in France where Mansfield was convalescing. As Richard turns the earth of his past looking for solace and has on-going internal conversations with his ‘imaginary daughter’, we are shunted into the immediate reality of DCO (Detention Centre Officer) Brittany Hall, employed by private company SA4A. Brittany, a young woman trapped in the bureaucracy and brutality of the system, is difficult to empathise with. Educated but poor, she needs a job like anyone else and has been subsumed by the culture that permeates the refugee centre, one where fellow humans are seen as numbers and problems. Walking into this centre comes a school girl, a girl with a mythological story and seemingly mystical powers. How does she get through the layers of security to the office of the manager of this centre? Brittany’s introduction to the power of this unusual child is an announcement that the toilets have been cleaned - at a school girl's demand - in the centre to the disbelief of the workers and the refugees alike. Brittany is thrown into this girl's world in an unexpected, way with startling consequences. Ali Smith’s brilliance is even more evident here than in the two previous seasonal novels, Autumn and Winter. How she pulls together these strands - a film-maker who has given up, a security officer brutalised by a system, a child determined to make a difference, and several other intriguing strands, is a demanding feat in itself, but the other layers - references to Mansfield and Rilke, the impact of writers and artists to champion change and new thinking through their work, the politics of borders and fascism, nods to other literary scripts (Shakespeare, Keats, Dickens), and an accompanying artist (Hockney’s works decorate the covers of these books, and each book hooks into an artist of related period - in Spring this is Tacita Dean) - make this brilliant writing, with a highly intelligent analysis of contemporary Britain, and a book (a quartet) that demands your attention. Ferocious and tender.  

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