Spring by Ali Smith

The previous novels in Ali Smith’s seasonal quarter have been highlights of my reading years, so I eagerly looked forward to this third installment. And it started off well: in the first part the reader is introduced to Richard Lease, a 60-something director of TV films who is mourning the death of his longtime scriptwriter, onetime lover, and all-around mentor and conscience, Paddy. He especially misses Paddy now because he is under contract to direct a film about a chance meeting between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland in 1922. Paddy gives him as much help on Mansfield and Rilke as she can before her death, but the script being written by the youngish and oh-so-hip Terp is an unmitigated disaster; departures from the historical record are the least of its problems.

Richard abandons his work responsibilities and heads way north to the Highlands of Scotland, where he serendipitously meets up with a young girl, Florence, and her companion, Brittany (Brit), who are also up from the south of England. Brit works at a refugee detainment center and Flora is somehow connected to the center and to other refugees, but she’s basically on her own. Their reasons for traveling north are revealed in the second part of the novel.

Richard resembles other Smith characters in being white, educated, affluent, and in distress over choices he has and hasn’t made in his life. His interactions with Paddy are a delight to read (I wanted Paddy to stick around for the whole novel but that was clearly not going to happen). Their dialogue sparkles and even when Paddy is reciting set pieces, they’re Ali Smith set pieces so they’re excellent.

Like Autumn and Winter, Spring explores the political and cultural environment of the current moment through art, artists, and politics. This story ramps up the role of political bureaucracy with a vengeance, as the annoying but manageable institutions like the passport office are replaced by a prison-equivalent refugee detention centre, run by the previously mysterious agency SA4A. We see the centre through Brit’s eyes; she acknowledges the misery and injustice inherent in its operation, but she accepts it as the job she has.

The debates over Brexit and family squabbles that animated Winter are absent here, though; while Brit is part of the institutional structure, her perspective is that of a coopted observer rather than an active ideologue. This is interesting to me because it seems to let her off the hook a bit. Yes, she accompanies Flora to Scotland, but she’s not about to help her out of her precarious situation. She’s a company person to her core.

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