Spring by Ali Smith - Literary Medicine. I had a little experiment going at the beginning of this year: to read novels which chimed with each season. The obvious place to start was with Ali Smith’s trio (soon to be quartet) of novels named after the four seasons. Before this, Ali Smith was an unknown quantity on my bookshelf...
..Winter hooked me with its hallucinatory imagery, but mainly with its humorous take on Boris Johnson, “the opposite” of Samuel, and all things Brexit-ary. But it was Spring which reeled me in. The reason for this? It kept my brain dancing at a time when we had all became restricted, physically and socially. It also warned me that the answer to isolation was not to immerse myself fully in the online world.
This novel asks fundamental questions, but it is never smug enough to answer them for us. Giving you a full breakdown of the Spring’s myriad themes would do it a disservice. I’m still not sure what it’s “about”. Whilst reading, I thought it was about death, then depression, then social stagnation, then immigrant identity. I think it is probably about all these things, and more. It certainly explores the idea of transformation – the inevitable process of ‘spring’.
As for central characters, first I thought there was one. Then two. Then obviously three. But really it was four (or more): an ageing gentleman (Richard), a young woman in a morally-challenged job (Brit), a down-to-earth teenager (unnamed) with apparent divine timing and influence, and the narrators she creates in her notebook (“Your Hot Air Book”). The characters embody certain preoccupying aspects of our lives today - loneliness, ambiguity, a younger form of feminism, and how we all fit in (or don’t) with the digital world, to name but a few - while also managing an every(wo)man quality that many writers find impossible to achieve. My favorite character is the notebook, because its turn as social media made me LOL: “We want to narrate your life. We want to be the book of you. We want to be the only connection that matters. 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.” Ali Smith is also a comedienne. A good one.
Spring is (I think) deliberately complex, but also accessible. Smith never ascends to exclusive language in order to make her casual genius obvious (but casual genius she is, readers - make no mistake). She prefers to play with real language spoken by real people. In doing so, we readers have the treat of intruding directly on a character’s thoughts. Take Brit, for example. We are getting acquainted with her world, everything which surrounds her daily, and then her thoughts tell us: “Stel’d been working here years, three years someone said, as long as that. She was nearly thirty. Brit herself was relatively new. Deets could still tell. This wasn’t a good thing.”
This is how Brit herself would talk to us. It is her language, not Smith’s idea of how it should be. I love this humble authorship. It is refreshing not to be confronted with brilliance, but rather simply presented with it. This quality is also present in Smith’s gentle (but precise) humor.
At a time when I was starting to feel guilty about my reading habit – how could I be so indulgent when there was work to do, children to tutor, neighbors to support? – Spring got me all excited about words and their power again. If it has to be about anything, this novel is about the power of words - written, spoken, thought - but also the meaning behind communication of all kinds. With this in mind, I will leave you with my favorite quote from the novel (call it bait, if you will): “A child grows up saying words that the rest of the world tells the child aren’t words.” Maybe we understand more by reading people’s thoughts than by listening to them… After all, it gives us time to think before responding, just like Smith’s prose.
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Guest Blogger: Rebecca Blunder
Editor for LiteraryGlobe, proofreader, and writer based in The Hague but originally from Cornwall, UK. A bookworm from the time I could read, and a lover of stories in all their glorious forms even before that. Interested in how stories can be used to work through problems and considering training in bibliotherapy - see my new blog on this subject...