For this month's book club Jen Campbell reviews Spring by Ali Smith. Spring is the third book in Smith's seasonal quartet (Autumn and Winter are already published), though you can read them in any order. Like its predecessors it is written with an urgency and a truth that's impossible to ignore.
In the Highlands of Scotland, back when traditions were more closely followed than they are now, it was the month when people lit candles to call the sun back to the earth.'
Ali Smith is someone who sheds light. Actually, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she finds it. When she does, she nudges us towards the embers, asks us to look up from the artificial brightness of our mobile phones she offers us boxes filled with words written by other people who too have set out on a quest to find that glow, that small shoot of green in the dark. Here, she says: here's a box of hope, and one of despair, then hope again. What are you going to do with all this boxed up light? She leans through the first few pages of Spring and taps us on the head. What's giving your world fresh colours?'
Richard, our first main character, isn't sure. He's stranded at a train station in Scotland mourning the loss of his best friend. I say he's our first main character because this story isn't necessarily his. The novel denies us, or him, that ownership. This is bigger than Richard. Richard has his own stories to tell, true he even produces tales for a living but stories, like histories, are spiderwebs. And as Richard looks out to the mountains and thinks about pictures of mountains he's seen in art galleries, and postcards of mountains, and books about mountains he remarks that these particular mountains the Cairngorms are Sublime. And so he becomes like any other Romantic poet trying to find his roots, trying to pinpoint his existence, trying to make sense of a world in which we are so small.
Our second main character is Brittany. She works at a detention centre and has developed a habit of saying good morning to the hedges around the car park. She likes borders. Then there's Florence. In many Ali Smith novels we are presented with a character who breaks through the smaller orbits of other characters. A character who invades storytelling, or dodges storytelling, or even happens to personify storytelling itself. In The Accidental that's Amber, in Winter that's Lux. In Spring that particular character is Florence. Florence is there to disrupt the flow (Flo) of assumed narrative. She's there to question the structures, authority and ownership upheld by Brittany (Britain).
We are introduced to Florence as a lost, wandering child full of purpose and truth, both whimsical and philosophical. She's almost mythic. Whilst at first glance Florence may seem to be a fable-like storytelling device used by Smith, we come to learn that she is actually being used as a storytelling device by the other characters. Brittany wants Florence to define herself to say who she is and where she comes from. Florence refuses to provide that information. She has learned that all too often personal narratives are twisted by those with more power.
Spring is all about the power of storytelling and what we choose to do with it. It's about bedtime stories and fake news, racist rhetoric and mythology. By jumping from character to character, and delving into the lives of writers and artists both dead and alive, this novel is a series of postcards depicting our turbulent present. In our current political climate, I'm not sure those postcards say wish you were here!' Perhaps instead they ask the question: where do you wish we were going?'
This review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. The book club exists in a purely digital sphere but we hope that you will add your own thoughts and comments below. For our next book club, Jen will be reviewing the Women's Prize shortlist. All those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a bundle of all the books on the shortlist.
Jacket painting by David Hockney.