Spring by Ali Smith

by Sunita

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.

It’s clear where Smith’s ideological sympathies lie in all three of these novels, but this one felt more heavy-handed and on-the-nose than the previous ones did. The passages excoriating the UK’s detention procedures and the role of social media in shaping discourse are beautifully done, but they’re not anything that Smith’s readers are going to be surprised or enlightened by. The style is what makes them work, not the substance.

My bigger problem, though, was with a couple of the characters and the Scotland-set sections The two juvenile characters didn’t really work for me. The first was an imaginary daughter whom Richard talks to in his head; she is a stand-in for his actual daughter who has been out of his life since her early adolescence. These dialogues were OK in small doses but after a while I became impatient with all the women who were taking care of Richard and I wanted him just to grow up. I understood the role of this character: she is part of the larger story arc and I’m sure we’ll see more of the real version and Richard (or some variation) in the final installment. But the Wise Child thing tipped into cliché for me.

The second Wise Child, Flora, was an even bigger problem for me. Flora has the ability to get adults to do what she wants, from detention centre officials to random strangers. She may or may not have supernatural qualities, but either way she comes perilously close to the trope of the Magical Negro, which we should not be anywhere near in 2019. But even if she can escape this role, the clearly present “children will save us” trope absolutely drives me around the bend today. Yes, I know there are children like Greta Thunberg who are doing important work and I respect their dedication and commitment. But it’s an abdication of adult responsibilities to rely on them, and I wanted to see some acknowledgment of that.

Flora’s character and story purpose is further complicated by her refugee status. In the Scotland section the storyline develops what appeared to me to be a relationship between contemporary displacement of peoples and the Highland Clearances, using that relationship to make connections between Flora and those who want to help her and other refugees. I can totally see why Scottish nationalists would make this connection, but I cannot see how it can have much resonance for Middle Eastern and North African refugees today. Not just because the Clearances happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, but because Scots were an integral part of the British Empire. Yes, Scotland suffered internal colonialism. But its citizens also aided and benefited from Britain’s imperial project. I find it hard to believe that your average Syrian refugee is going to embrace the Scottish people as fellow travelers. So once again, this is a story about the kinship white people feel with non-white people but not necessarily the reciprocal relationship. And I’m done with stories about how white people feel about inequality toward non-white people. I don’t discount or fault Smith’s passion and sincerity. I just don’t think it’s the most relevant issue in Flora’s story and it comes across as another example of preaching to the choir.

So, overall, this is a mixed bag of a read for me. It’s Ali Smith, so I can’t possibly regret reading it. But there’s some odd messaging that doesn’t sit well, even for a reader who shares her sympathies and concerns.