Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet takes a dark turn in Spring

Spring, though full of Smith’s trademark puns, is a more sinister novel.

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Spring is the third instalment of Ali Smith’s Brexit-inflected “seasonal quartet”. The first, Autumn, appeared in October 2016, a mere four months after the referendum; Spring’s publication date is the day before the UK was originally due to leave the EU. (Winter was published in November 2017.) Each novel introduces a new set of characters, but all three portray a present-day Britain suffering from austerity, bureaucracy, climate change, capitalism, technology and xenophobia. All three also travel backwards and forwards throughout the 20th century, creating a patchwork of individual and cultural memory and forgetfulness that sets linear time against cyclical time.

Autumn and Winter shared a certain optimism familiar from Smith’s earlier works: a belief that humans can change, that love in its various forms will flourish even in the grimmest circumstances, that accidents are more often felicitous than catastrophic. Spring, though as full of Smith’s trademark puns as its companion volumes, is an altogether darker novel; as it obliquely reminds us, we’ve known for almost a century that April can be the cruellest month. The tone is set by the opening three pages, a brilliantly menacing sequence of demands made by an unnamed collective voice: “What we need is to say thinking is elite knowledge is elite… We need all that patriotic stuff… we want fury we want outrage we want words at their most emotive antisemite is good nazi is great paedo will really do it perverted foreigner illegal.” The novel goes on to offer a powerful confrontation with the atrocities that have taken place, and continue to take place, on British soil.

Spring’s two main characters, Richard and Brittany, are struggling in Brexit Britain. Richard, an elderly film director whose work is now largely unknown, has recently taken on an unpromising project about a (fictional) love affair between Katherine Mansfield and Rilke (we see several pages of its dismal script). Richard’s beloved creative partner has just died, and wherever he goes he hears the voice of his imaginary daughter, a substitute for the real one whom he hasn’t seen since she was a baby.

Brit – lest we miss the resonance of this, her co-worker nicknames her “Britannia” – was one of the top students in her school, along with her ex-boyfriend, Josh, but neither of them could afford university. Now Josh is unemployed (laid off from a job in an Amazon-style warehouse) while Brit lives with her mother and works as a custody officer at a nearby detention centre. She is furious when Josh tells her that her job is making her selfish and self-righteous, brainwashing her into thinking that “keeping people out” is what being British is about. Chilling bullet-points telling us “some of the things Brittany Hall learned” show that Josh is right: she is being schooled in xenophobia and casual cruelty.

One October day Richard, desperate to put distance between himself and the Mansfield-Rilke fiasco, takes a train from Kings Cross to Kingussie, a town in the Highlands. There he meets Brit, who has also travelled from the south-east, invited by a 12-year-old girl in school uniform whom she met on her way to work. The girl, who calls herself Florence, refuses to say where she’s from and has an impressive ability to get what she wants, alternately charming and making herself invisible to those who might stand in her way. Within half an hour of their arrival in Kingussie, Florence, Richard and Brit are travelling further north on an unknown mission, driven by a woman who seems to have been waiting for Florence’s arrival.

Certain similarities of plot, reference and character present in both Autumn and Winter show themselves to be structuring principles of the quartet when they reappear in Spring. Others turn out to be more like decoration. Here are Shakespeare, Dickens and Charlie Chaplin again; here is another only child frustrated by her single mother and another real-life 20th-century female artist. Near its conclusion, Spring even uncovers a connection between Richard and a character in one of the earlier novels – presumably something to which Smith will return in the quartet’s final volume. But the most significant element that Spring shares with its predecessors is an enigmatic and mischievous immigrant who offers lonely and small-minded Brits new ways of looking at the world. The novel seldom mentions Brexit explicitly, but the implications of this plot are hardly subtle.

Smith’s immigrants have a greater facility for the English language than her native speakers, and Florence, like her precursors, endears herself to those she meets with clever wordplay. Indeed, almost all the novel’s characters seem happiest when conducting their relationships through punning.

Among living writers, Smith is almost unparalleled in her use of puns, but when they appear in the mouth of every character, they begin to lose their appeal. A Britain in which humans can only find meaning and connection in wordplay begins to look as blinkered and restrictive as a Britain populated only by the British, and Smith herself seems to be losing faith in the power of such play. Sinister monologues of the kind that open the novel recur throughout, and by the end we realise that once such voices take hold of an individual, the liberatory spirit of puns can only do so much. We may be in for a bleak Summer. 

Ali Smith appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 7 April

Spring
Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 352pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 29 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty