Spring by Ali Smith is the third book in her seasonal quartet. It links to its predecessors, Autumn and Winter, by sharing some of the same features, including oblique references to characters given greater prominence in the earlier books. Of the three books, Spring is the strongest.
The story unfolds in two narrative threads that eventually converge. The first thread involves Richard, a TV producer grieving over the loss of his closest friend and collaborator, Patricia (Paddy). He boards a train heading for Scotland with no specific purpose or destination in mind. The second thread involves, Brittany (Brit), a guard at a detention center for migrants. On her way to work, she encounters a young school girl, Florence, at a train station. When Florence boards a train heading for Scotland, Brit follows her. The two form a connection and end up in Kingussie, Scotland, on the same railway platform as Richard. The three then join Alda in the cab of her coffee truck on a road trip to Inverness.
In true Ali Smith fashion, the narrative threads leap forward and backward in time. The present is layered with snapshots of the distant and more recent past. Allusions to artists and their work dot the landscape—Katherine Mansfield, Rainer Maria Rilke, Beethoven, Charlie Chaplin, the contemporary visual artist, Tacita Dean, and a nod to Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.
Again, in true Ali Smith fashion, political commentary on current events weaves its way throughout the narrative. Smith is unabashedly political. With unflinching honesty, she forces us to examine the ramifications of our political decisions on individual lives. The political is unequivocally personal. In this case, Smith turns her laser sharp focus on the horrendous, inhumane treatment of refugees held in detention centers; the clandestine network of volunteers who help them escape to freedom; and the borders and fences erected as markers of separation between people. Contemporary struggles for freedom reverberate with the 1746 Battle of Culloden at Inverness and with the death of Michael Collins in 1922. These echoes give history a decidedly cyclical quality—as if we are caught up in a whirlpool of experiencing different manifestations of some of the same struggles.
Smith’s writing is vigorous and moves at a rapid pace. Her prose is lucid and powerful. Her delight in puns and word play is contagious. Her writing is compassionate, intelligent, warm, and brilliant. Her consummate skill as a writer is, perhaps, never more evident than in her use of dialogue. Conversations sparkle, especially those between Richard and Paddy, and between Brit and Florence.
Just when you were convinced she couldn’t do better than Autumn or Winter, Spring comes along and proves you wrong.