Ali Smith’s volatile Spring

I’ll be honest – I am so intimidated by the idea of reviewing this book that I have put it off for six months. I love Ali Smith’s frenetic voice in parts of Spring so much that I feel myself beginning to hyperventilate as I read.  I don’t think, and I recognise that this is a big claim, that there is another writer who can do what she does here. As with Autumn and Winter, she has taken political and social elements of our mad, bad times and produced a novel that is both wonderful and terrifying.

Briefly riffing off Gradgrind’s demands for facts, Spring quickly seques into the rabid voice of a right-winger, in a tirade which cleverly skewers fake news, unseen political manoeuvres, and overt political hostility.

‘We want the people we call foreign to feel foreign we need to make it clear they can’t have rights unless we say so. What we want is outrage offence distraction. What we need is to say thinking is elite knowledge is elite what we need is people feeling left behind disenfranchised what we need is people feeling. What we need is panic we want subconscious panic we want conscious panic too.’

It is another brilliant and incisive look at a highly problematic social situation – of course it was written well before the pandemic and all the seismic social stuff that has followed. Reading it now, I almost feel nostalgic for a spring in which you knew what the thing you opposed was likely to do next. Almost – and then it reminds you of the ubiquity of aggressive political battles, even whilst we are in the middle of this lockdown, and you remember that there is more than just Covid-19 to threaten you.

But this is spring – and there is also a strong green element of angry optimism running through the novel, one which we would do well to continue to heed when we finally return to a ‘normal’ world:

‘Mess up my climate, I’ll fuck with your lives. Your lives are a nothing to me. I’ll yank daffodils out of the ground in December. I’ll block up your front door in April with snow and blow down that tree so it cracks your roof open. I’ll carpet your house with the river.

But I’ll be the reason your own sap’s reviving. I’ll mainline the light to your veins.’

And we remember that many rebellions have been called ‘Spring’ in their optimistic opening months.

In amongst all of this, we meet a mysterious school girl who breezes in and out of the detention centres,  in and out of brothels which are making money out of underage girls, making those in power somehow feel accountable for the first time in forever. She is something of a lost girl in many ways, refreshingly powerful in all she represents in this weary post-Brexit Britain. Together with a rather motley assortment of supporting characters, we watch her travel to find the start of her own story, and everything dovetails around the idea of identity and belonging. As is noted in the blurb of the novel, Smith is also tapping into Shakespeare’s Pericles in this novel and there’s a sense of both renewal and rediscovery for her characters.

Smith’s writing zings – that’s the inadequate best I am able to do – and leaves the reader feeling exhilarated. Summer is available to pre-order and I’m already on the edge of my seat.

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