Review

A meandering but meaningful mess

Spring is the third instalment in Ali Smith's (above) seasonal quartet.
Spring is the third instalment in Ali Smith's (above) seasonal quartet.PHOTO: SARAH WOOD

FICTION

SPRING

By Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton/Paperback/ 336 pages/$32.10/Books Kinokuniya

4 stars

A failing film-maker, a security officer from an immigrant detention centre and a librarian go on a road trip to northern Scotland in a coffee truck.

This is the eventual direction of Scottish writer Ali Smith's latest novel, Spring, which, like the season of its title, is a vibrant, if messy, profusion of themes and trivia.

Central to it is a 12-year-old girl who calls herself Florence and seems like a cross between the compellingly virtuous Marina of Shakespeare's play Pericles and young environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

Florence is a worker of miracles. Rumour has it that she has walked into a brothel and convinced those there to let the trafficked girls go free. She has waltzed into immigrant removal centres and told them to do unorthodox things, like get the toilets properly cleaned. She could be a refugee, an orphan, the Second Coming, everybody and nobody at once.



Spring (above) is 
the third 
instalment in Ali
Smith’s seasonal quartet. PHOTO:
SARAH WOOD

Through her mysterious powers of persuasion, she has bundled along on her Scottish quest Richard Lease, a once-acclaimed director now without direction; Alda Lyons, the librarian driving the coffee truck; and Brittany Hall, who works at an immigration removal centre euphemistically named The Wood.

Spring is the third instalment in Smith's seasonal quartet, written as the Brexit situation develops. Despite being named for the season of hope and bloom, it is in fact bleaker than both Autumn (2016) and Winter (2017) put together.

At points, it is incandescent with rage, particularly in the sections about the people detained indefinitely in The Wood - "deets" for short. Smith has drawn on the testimonies of real-life refugees and detainees and it shows in the hideous depictions here of everyday humiliation by ordinary people at the hands of other ordinary people.

Great pains are taken to emphasise the timeliness and relevance of the work, at the expense of the subtlety that characterised its predecessors.

Several pages reproduce the hate speech you might find on a viral Twitter thread, or imagine the insidious intentions of social media executives. It is the sort of heavy-handed soapboxing one does not expect from a writer as deft as Smith.

Yet there are moments of levity, even of lift.

Richard has been approached to direct a film adaptation of a novel called April, about how New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield and Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke lived in the same Swiss town in 1922, but never met.

The laughably awful scriptwriter he has been saddled with has re-imagined the plot as a torrid affair where the two writers have wild sex all over the hotel, on a billiards table and in a rocking cable car. Richard knows better, thanks to Paddy, the fiercely intelligent Irish script-writer with whom he created his best work, who doles out much of the book's most interesting trivia and whose death he now mourns.

Spring, with its meanderings, its missed connections and migrating stories, is a mess of a novel, but meaningfully so. With it, Smith pushes forth shoots of resistance as she hurtles towards the close of her quartet and Britain towards the Brexit point of no return. What will the heat of summer be like? We can only know when we get there.

If you like this, read: Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Ingvild Burkey (Penguin, 2018, $41.63, Books Kinokuniya). The Norwegian author addresses his newborn daughter in the third part of his own seasonal quartet, in which mundane events are marked by mysteries such as the absence of his wife and why he had to visit Child Protection Services.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2019, with the headline 'A meandering but meaningful mess'. Print Edition | Subscribe