Following on from 2016’s Autumn and 2017’s Winter, the third novel in Ali Smith’s projected quartet is named after the season of new life, but it’s a bleaker, darker book than its predecessors. Written and published at speed, all three have tacked close to current events; the divisions crystallised by the EU referendum that opened Autumn have only hardened over the past three years, while beyond our small island conflict and climate change force ever more people from their homes. And yet, fittingly for a writer who over a quarter-century career has relished contradiction and oxymoron, the novel gradually reveals its kernel, like a seed unfurling in darkness, to be one of hope. “True hope,” one character says, is “actually the absence of hope.”
Smith’s genius in these three books has been to use art and literature to navigate through the froth of the present moment with such a light touch that she rarely seems to lecture. Autumn caught the national shift of mood after the Brexit vote, but it was also a story of impossible love and life-defining friendship across the generations, introducing the reader to neglected 60s pop artist Pauline Boty, whose works blaze with colour and fun. In Winter, inept nature blogger Art spent Christmas with his elderly mother Sophia and her estranged sister Iris, with charismatic visitor Lux bringing light and warmth to the chilly family dynamic. Arch-capitalist Sophia and Greenham Common veteran Iris personified not only the national standoff between leavers and remainers, but also the long, intimate wars of siblinghood. “I hate you.” “I hate you too,” the two old women tell each other fondly as they snuggle down to sleep. In a merrily surreal tale that featured the bobbing disembodied head of a child and a piece of cliff hanging in the air, the highlighted artist was Barbara Hepworth, her sculptural forms something literally to hold on to in troubled times.
The presiding artistic spirit of Spring is Tacita Dean, first introduced through her seven metre-wide chalk-on-blackboard drawing The Montafon Letter, a picture of a mountain so huge that “the wall became mountain and the mountain became a kind of wall”, with an avalanche roaring towards the viewer “stilled for just that moment so that whoever saw it had time to comprehend it”. It’s a potent symbol of the future rearing up in front of us: the impact of Brexit, the enormity of climate breakdown, and the terrible paralysis of political will besetting Britain and the wider world. This is “something terrible, seen”: a far cry from the colourful exuberance of Boty or Hepworth’s cool enigmas.
The man murmuring an awed “fuck me” in the Royal Academy as he stares at the snowscape is Richard Lease, a TV director whose heyday is long past. He is there for the sake of his dear friend and collaborator, scriptwriter Paddy, who long ago suggested that he take his estranged daughter to galleries in spirit as a way of keeping their connection alive: for years he has maintained an internal dialogue with an imaginary child, while his real daughter grows to adulthood without him. The novel shuffles time with Smith’s customary insouciance so that as the book opens Paddy is dying, has died; and Richard is devastated with grief for the woman he has hero worshipped for five decades. He strikes out on a pilgrimage of mourning that intersects with the story of another lost soul: Brittany, a young woman working – here Smith has bitter fun with the acronyms and euphemisms of detention – as a DCO in an IRC for the HO. It’s not a prison, Brit stresses, but “a purpose-built Immigration Removal Centre with a prison design”.
The details of everyday life for detainees, taken from news reports and anonymous testimony gathered by Smith, form the shocking, angry heart of the book, but into this sordidly realistic realm steps a magical child called Florence. “Does that make me the machine?” asks Brit, only too aware of what her role as a cog in the system is doing to her. The mysterious Florence has somehow convinced IRC management to get the toilets properly cleaned at last; there are rumours that she walked into a south-east London “sex house” and freed the trafficked women. She enchants the cynical, reluctant Brit and enlists her help on a journey.
Here the novel becomes an explicit refashioning of Pericles, Shakespeare’s co-written play of migration and family separation, with Florence as a modern-day Marina. Born at sea, alone in the world, Pericles’ lost daughter also possesses enough virtue and rhetorical persuasiveness to keep her safe in a brothel. The reader must make the leap of faith with Smith, just as the audience did in the Jacobean era, while Brit struggles with an unfashionable concept that seems embarrassingly irrelevant in these compromised times: “Another old word from history and songs that nobody uses in real life any more. She is good.”
Like Lux in Winter, Florence is a classic Smith trope: the stranger who can reawaken characters’ dormant imaginations and emotions, break the frozen sea within. She is also, as she points out when told off for naivety in questioning society’s attitude to national borders, just a 12-year-old girl – “What do you expect?” With schoolchildren currently leading climate change protests, her inclusion in the novel is a beautiful piece of synchronicity, and the sparky, buzzy banter between her and Brit is brilliantly done.
Sections of the book use fable or rhetoric to channel our contemporary madness – a passage in the voice of Big Tech thunders “we want it to be inconvenient for you not to use us. We want you to look at us and as soon as you stop looking at us to feel the need to look at us again” – and Smith presents these as taken from Florence’s notebook. “Though it’s naive, the kind of stuff a school student would write, it’s witty too, and it makes Brit think. Even a 12-year-old girl can see through a lot of what’s happening in the world right now.”
Spring is often blunter and more explicit, then, more proselytising and polemical, than the playful, riddling Smith we’re used to. There are exchanges voicing exasperation and fury at the state of the world that don’t quite lift into fiction: “What’s happened to all the good people of this country?… Racism, Richard said. Legitimized. Legitimized 24/7 on all the news and in all the papers, on so many screens, grace of the god of endless new beginnings, the god we call the internet.” One section in the voice of a refugee excoriates fiction’s much-vaunted empathy-building properties: my face, they say, is the face “you picture in your head in the novels that aren’t about you”, that “let you feel that you’ve felt, you’ve been really importantly moved… It’s nothing. My pleasure. My face is all about you.”
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. Jokes detonate throughout, from the bleak to the whimsical, as surprising and moving connections are revealed between all three novels. As well as Shakespeare and Dean she summons the spirits of “the two great homeless writers, the great outliers”, short-story writer Katherine Mansfield and poet Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as her beloved Charlie Chaplin, who becomes a wandering artistic everyman. For decades Smith has seemed a glorious one-off: her influence is being seen now in younger writers such as Eley Williams and Max Porter, similarly accessible experimentalists with an irrepressible love of language, but as her Seasonal Quartet moves towards completion her own role in British fiction looks ever more vital. The final page proclaims spring “the great connective”. It’s not a bad description of Smith herself.
• Spring is published by Hamish Hamilton (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.