SPRING. By Ali Smith. Pantheon Books. 352 pages. $25.95.
One of the epigraphs to Ali Smith’s “Spring,” the third volume in her Seasons quartet, is from George Mackay Brown: “The year stretched like a child again and rubbed its eyes on light.” Yet, for all the promise of the limber young season, “Spring” is bleaker than its predecessors “Autumn” and “Winter.”
Smith is still a loving creator who takes a tolerant, amused approach to her characters. She has tender feelings and loves to laugh. But no amount of froth can sweeten the political menace at the core of “Spring.” The lightening season and the darkening future are part of a pattern of contrasts and reversals that form Smith’s collage-like novel.
“Spring” leads off with a blistering rant. The voice comes out of nowhere with a twisted compendium of what “we want”: “What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth. ... We want powerful people saying they want other powerful people chopped up in bags in my freezer we want muslim women a joke in a newspaper column we want the laugh we want the sound of the laugh behind them everywhere they go. 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.”
The next chapter introduces another voice, that of Nature itself (“But I’ll be the reason your own sap’s reviving. I’ll mainline the light to your veins”). There they are, the voices of dark and light, having it out.
The plot itself develops by telling adjacent stories that ultimately intersect. First up is Richard Lease, a director of television films who is standing on a train platform somewhere in the north of Scotland when we meet him. Why? Don’t ask, says the narrator: “That’s the wrong kind of question. It implies there’s a story. He’s had it with story. He is removing himself from story.”
But Richard’s crisis — his loss of faith in the plot of his own life and the value of imagination — is itself a heart-tugging story. All the while he’s shunning narrative, Richard’s mind is tracking back to recover and converse with people he’s lost. The first absent friend is Paddy Heale, his mentor, script writer, and one-time lover, now “rubble.” Paddy quotes Dickens to Richard, “But time’s factory’s a secret place.” Sometimes, she reminds him, we get to be more than the little or nothing that history planned for us. After she dies, Paddy is ever-present in his mind. The second internal voice belongs to Richard’s lost daughter, who left with her mother a lifetime ago. While he carries on an internal conversation with her imaginary replacement, his flesh and blood daughter has been out there all along, searchable on Google and working as a university lecturer.
The other storyline centers on Brittany Hall (Brittania?), who works as a guard at an immigrant detention center, or, as she prefers to call it, a “purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre with a prison design.” The center is run by SA4A, the security agency that policed the fence in “Autumn” and returned in “Winter.” It’s a job; Brit has no political anger against the deets (detainees). Smith might have made Brit a villain, but she gives her a heart and a sense of humor. Brit is her own woman, although she works in an atmosphere of sweeping generalities and hard rules. When she first starts the job, one of her co-workers whispers in her ear, “Cruelty to animals will get you punished, but cruelty to humans will get you promoted.”
Richard and Brit are united by Florence, a familiar Ali Smith character. She is an arch, preternaturally smart girl who does the deeds and asks the questions that clarify the rest of the story. Florence arrives at the detention center like an angel, curing the hopeless and somehow even managing to have the toilets cleaned. Magic is her milieu, as it is Smith’s, whose mind is a bank of fairy tales and myths.
Brit and Florence have a running gag: Together, they are Florence and the Machine. Florence tweaks the phrase to call Brit “my machine.” Somehow, Florence and her machine end up with Alda Lyons, who runs a modern Underground Railroad for refugees. With them is Richard Lease, whose life Florence has just saved from suicide. They are all on the way to Culloden, site of the last battle fought on British soil. It’s a madcap journey, motiveless for some in the party and a highly intentioned, symbolic destination for others. Collective meaning doesn’t really exist for Smith’s troupe, but each comes away changed, disrupted somehow by the wonder of what they’ve been through.
Smith is in wind-up mode now, and her Seasons books are starting to cohere. Like the other books in the series, “Spring” has links to one of Shakespeare’s late romances, “Pericles” (“The Tempest” for “Autumn” and “Cymbeline” for “Winter”). The late romances tell swashbuckling stories of mistaken identity and broken families. While the comedies promise both a holiday from reason and a restoration of order, all in good fun, the late romances don’t always convert disaster to laughter. Happiness and wholeness are at stake. After all the suffering, it’s a relief when the harms are reversed, but the mood isn’t exactly giddy.
“Spring” keeps alive the dream of love and reunion, despite its backdrop of barricades and detention centers. The disembodied voice that inserts itself occasionally has said that “what we want is bewilderment.” Smith gives it to us in a sturdy and annually refreshed image: “Pass any flowering bush or tree and you can’t not hear it, the buzz of the engine, the new life already at work in it, time’s factory.” On to "Summer."