Spring by Ali Smith: A review

Third in Ali Smith's remarkable seasonal series of novels comes Spring. All three of the books have been timely, the action in them occurring almost in the time frame in which we read them. The action here is mostly in October 2018. Considering the time it takes to write a book - the drafting, the revision, the editing, and finally the publication - how does she manage to do that?

The books are very much of this political era, the post-Brexit vote in the UK and the post-2016 presidential election in the US, and this book deals cogently and in white-hot passion with the monstrous treatment of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

The opening line of Spring is, "Now what we don't want is facts" and thus Smith sums up very succinctly the governing strategy of the moment. Facts are not really facts but are whatever you can get people to believe. Truth is malleable and waiting to be shaped by the master propagandists. This is the background for the stories she tells us.

She gives us a psychological tale about Richard Lease, a filmmaker. Lease is grieving over the death of his best friend, an older female screenwriter with whom he had collaborated. Thus one of the themes of the series, male appreciation for female artists, continues with this book. But it is not only Lease's appreciation for the work of his (fictional) friend but also he reveres the work of a real artist named Tacita Dean. Moreover, the last gift his now deceased friend gave him was an idea for a film about writers Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke who spent weeks in the same small Swiss town in 1922 but never met. She also bequeathed her set of Mansfield books to Lease. So, in fact, the work of three female artists is woven into the story.

Smith also interweaves sections of social media renderings, particularly the collective voice of Twitter trolls which are just as hateful, racist, misogynistic, and ignorant as you might expect. These examples of contemporary "culture" are especially disturbing because we know that they actually do occur. Users of Twitter and other such platforms do threaten to rape, murder, and otherwise physically assault anyone - especially any woman - who dares to express opinions at variance with their dogma. These sections give the novel even greater timeliness. Many could have been taken from our president's daily Twitter output.

Smith then shifts again to the story of Brit, a young woman who works in an Immigration Removal Center, which, she helpfully explains to a refugee who had come to Britain sealed in a hauling container, is not a prison, "it's a purpose-built Immigration Removal Center with a prison design." We understand very quickly that Brit has lost any moral sense she might have once possessed.

Brit's life is changed when she meets a 12- or 13-year-old schoolgirl named Florence who showed up at the I.R.C. one day and somehow - magical realism? - managed to shame the director into having the stinking bathrooms cleaned. Those who meet Florence seem to be in thrall to her and willingly do her bidding.

Soon, but not until we have fully experienced the horrors of the Immigration Removal Center, Brit and Florence hit the road and eventually end up, along with Richard Lease, in a Scottish town. Here, the stories of Lease, Brit, and Florence do finally merge. 

Any summary that I give of this novel is bound to be inadequate. It really has to be experienced. It could be a stand-alone but, ideally, I think it should be experienced, along with Autumn and Winter, in the order in which Smith has published them. Although the stories are not tightly connected in any way, they do build on each other. This one could be said to be the most political of the three. It is certainly the angriest and, in many ways, the most despairing and pessimistic. What, I wonder, will Summer bring? 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


  1. So timely. In real life, we do wonder what summer will bring. My big question is when am I going to get to these novels? Great review, Dorothy.

    1. I think you'll like them once you get to them. Each of the books is fairly short and a quick read, but you may, like me, find yourself rereading portions. There's a lot of there there - a lot to think about.


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