Hope springs eternal, even in Smith’s bleak, cautionary tale

Hope springs eternal, even in Smith’s bleak, cautionary tale
Ali Smith

An eternal nuclear autumn is “now globally just five nuclear explosions away,” says Florence, a 12-year-old girl in Ali Smith’s third instalment of her quartet, each of which is named after a season.

Smith’s critically acclaimed books, Autumn, and Winter, written and published with urgency, so that they are very much of the moment and sometimes prescient, are a wake-up call as to the state of the planet and a stylistically innovative exercise.

There is an immediacy to the writing and this is particularly evident in Spring. 

At one point in the novel, a lengthy post from an unnamed social network boldly states its intentions regarding its target: surveillance of every aspect of the subject’s life.

But if climate change and the likes of Facebook’s broad societal sweep sound a bit hackneyed, don’t be put off.

Spring is a rewarding novel that evolves from being deeply gloomy to something approaching hopeful. 

Florence, who is aged 12 and a small-time, but effective, activist, calls to mind the Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who, without ego, has become famous for her advocacy in trying to save the world through persuasion.

Before meeting Florence, the reader is introduced to a TV and film director, Richard, whose glory days are behind him. 

It is October 2018 and he is standing on a train platform in the north of Scotland, contemplating suicide.

There are flashbacks to his professional and personal partnership with an Irish woman, known as ‘Paddy’. He admired her.

She was inspirational as a scriptwriter.

But now, with Paddy having died from cancer, Richard feels adrift.

But even beyond the grave, Paddy is a source of solace for this man, who is unattractively weak. Or alienated. Either way, he needs all the help he can get.

He is estranged from his daughter, but Paddy had suggested to Richard that he talk to an imaginary daughter to compensate for the absence. 

And Richard does just that, carrying on an interior dialogue.

The imaginary daughter, who brokers no nonsense, is suggestive of Paddy herself. She hates self-pity.

The other somewhat alienated character in this book is a young woman called Brittany (known as Brit), who works as a detention centre officer in “a purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre with a prison design”. 

She looks up to Florence. For starters, Florence managed to get the filthy toilets in the detention centre cleaned, by a sanitation company.

Hope springs eternal, even in Smith’s bleak, cautionary tale

Brit thinks that Florence “makes people behave like they should, or like they live in a different, better world”. 

Florence asks questions like, “what is refugee chic?”, which she has seen referred to in the weekend newspaper fashion spreads. 

What, indeed, could it be?

This is a world where everything is reduced to a sound-bite or a catchy slogan.

It is also a world that arouses anger in its conscientious objectors, with children in the developing world working in mines, excavating the cobalt for “environmentally sound electric cars”. 

There are children who, having crossed the world for a better life, survive “in a whole new version of same old British poverty”.

This is a novel for our times, full of anger, but also reflection. It refers to writers such as Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as Shakespeare.

These literary allusions give the book a certain intellectual heft. 

But even without the digressions on writers, the narrative is strong enough to stand on its own.

Spring - Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

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