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Critics’ Picks review - Spring

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Cover - Spring / Ali Smith

Smith, Ali. Spring / Ali Smith. First United States ed. 2019. Print. Smith, Ali, 1962- Seasonal Quartet.

Man Booker Prize nominee Ali Smith’s latest novel explores Brexit and connected lives with some chaotically joyful prose.

The third book in Smith’s planned quartet of seasonal offerings is arguably her most overtly political. Autumn and the Dickens inspired Winter both spoke to a post-EU Referendum Britain, and Spring also blossoms out of Brexit rhetoric with the provocative opening lines, “Now what we don’t need is facts. What we want is bewilderment.”

Those lines are part of a series of moments that pepper Smith’s free-flowing narrative, almost like a brain dump in the language of social media. It’s one of several perspectives that Smith explores in Spring, bringing together a sharp awareness of the current political discourse while offering readers a few saplings of hope that might grow stronger throughout the telling.

Spring follows several characters in order to get a better grip on those viewpoints. There’s Richard, a once admired filmmaker whose long-time collaborator has recently died, trying to bring to life an offbeat project about the time Rainer Maria Rilke and Katherine Mansfield spent time in the same Swiss town in 1922. Brittany (or simply Brit) works at an immigration detention centre that keeps the detainees (or “deets”) in horrid conditions. Arriving during these darkening times is Florence, a 12-year-old girl who not only manages to gain access to the centre and make them clean their toilets, but she also takes Brit on a whirlwind trip that brings them into Richard’s orbit.

Smith’s love of language in all its forms positively oozes out of every page. There’s Florence’s wise-beyond-her-years screeds, but also Richard’s conversations with an imaginary daughter in which he asks her the meaning of words like “hashtag” and “#metoo.”  It’s this hyper awareness of language that fuels the politics of the novel, with many noting that this is a modern reworking of Shakespeare’s Pericles in which Florence acts as an updated version of Marina. Smith looks at the language of our era: walls and borders have a primary function of exclusion or isolation. The slang of Brit’s Immigration Removal Centre reduces human lives to numbers and processes. Even as an employee, she is known simply as ‘B’ on her ID.

So it’s refreshing to find that all things “spring” become thematic linking devices to unify and renew, rather than separating one season or person from another. “Winter has Epiphany,” comments one character. “Spring’s gifts are different. Month of dead entities coming back to life.” Florence is more direct in her stance on the importance of language: “Instead of saying, this border divides these places. We said, this border unites these places. This border holds together these two really interesting different places.”

Smith’s energetic writing once led writer Sebastian Barry (Days Without End) to proclaim her “Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting.” Spring confirms this in a narrative driven purely by exploration rather than dramatic urgency, one where each page draws on classical and contemporary allusions in equal measure. So, while there was a two-year gap between Winter and Spring, let’s hope that Summer’s release is not too far away.

Reviewer: Richard Gray, Librarian, Information & Access


“This is a novel that contains multitudes, and the wonder is that Smith folds so much in, from visionary nature writing to Twitter obscenities, in prose that is so deceptively relaxed.”The Guardian  

“Chockfull of Smith’s joyous language, wordplay and aphorisms, snippets of pop songs and folktales, classical allusions and appreciations of artists.” The Washington Post

“How then could a novel about spring be anything but a luminous and energetic hoot. Smith certainly fulfils the remit.”Sydney Morning Herald

“And the shape the telling takes is, if not salvation, brilliance itself.”The NY Times

Tacita Dean, Why cloud, 2016. Spray chalk, gouache and charcoal pencil on slate.

Tacita Dean, Why cloud, 2016. Spray chalk, gouache and charcoal pencil on slate.

Ali Smith relates her novel, and the idea of ‘history as a cloud,’ to the art.


Ali Smith is the author of Free Love and Other Stories, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, Artful, How to be both, Public library and other stories and Autumn. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Folio Prize. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge.