Review: ‘Spring’ by Ali Smith

This is my first brush with Ali Smith’s work, and I have joined in at book three of a tetralogy. Oh dear, I hear you say. That’s not going to go well, then. Au contraire.

Spring is without doubt the best novel I have read this year, nor do I anticipate I shall read another as good. The previous two were shortlisted for the Booker and the Orwell Prize respectively. This one isn’t up for any glittering prizes except the Not-the-Booker. I cannot understand why.

It begins thus: “Now what we don’t want is Facts. What we want is bewilderment.” I won’t go on. I could. It’s all worth quoting. I love the pseudo word cloud/shock headline emphases in the first bit; the lack of chapter headings, the division into parts (making navigation just a little bewildering); the voice of the protagonists, especially the one who slips between being dead and not yet dead.

I like the way Smith uses the building blocks of text in a slightly different, subversive way. Dialogue is clear, but she eschews speech marks. There is a flow to that which I like: it also reinforces that slight bewilderment, which I also like. What pass for chapters are short. There is (in the hardback copy I borrowed from the library) loads of white space and heavy creamy paper. All that has an effect: it is like walking on a foggy moor. I don’t think the spaciousness of the book is as evident in the paperback. And obviously will be quite lost on a Kindle.

I like my novels to have plenty of plot. This has almost no plot (which is why I borrowed it from the library instead of buying it: I didn’t anticipate wanting to finish it, let alone praise it). I’m not sure it has characterisation either, really. Note I say above ‘the voice of the protagonists’. It is a great, vibrant, rock-on sort of voice, but all the characters sound as if Smith is speaking through them. And why not? This is a novel of ideas. It is in Orwellian territory, raising ‘political writing to an art form’ (hence the nomination of Smith’s Winter for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction last year). So all the characters are prisms-of-Smith – and great prisms they are, each is fascinating, each dovetails with the others.

Spring is about NOW, about how brutalised and brutalising we have become. How ignorant and yet how all-knowing. It is a brilliant, fizzing, satirical polemic that excoriates us all. Except the dead/not yet dead Paddy, who we may as well call St Paddy for her brilliant wit, book smarts, come-backs and put-downs.

It has an edgy British sort of magic realism, as a 12 year old girl goes where adults do not think to or dare not, through locked doors, like an angel might. She makes a difference. As she goes she drags with her a detention centre officer, an ageing film maker who has agreed to make a film he despises and a Scottish woman who … no, I can’t tell you that: spoiler.

This book sits happily alongside those of Fay Weldon or Angela Carter. And it’s great to see this sort of uncompromising fiction has come back into fashion. (Of course, I’m way behind the curve here, as Ali Smith fans will doubtless point out – she has been banging out excellent books for years. But we all have to start somewhere with the reading of them.)

I fancy that when we come to look back at this bleak and embarrassing period, which will by then have solidified into ‘modern UK history’, this (like Coe’s The Rotters’ Club) may be something we turn to in order to understand what it was really like.

There is plenty of Anglo Saxon in this. You will need not to mind f**k and c**t bespattered conversations as you progress through this book full of wise insights into the way we live now.

The covers of this quartet of books are reproductions of those prints by David Hockney of the same farm track in each phase of the year. The same but different. Made on an iPad. Very appropriate.

I’ll leave you with this final thought from the book:

“What we want is need. What we need is want.”

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