Ali Smith

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Smith, Ali

Last Updated: Dec-02-2019
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


Ali Smith is a Scottish writer. If she lived in the U.S., hopefully (a word I will come back to at the end) she would be a household name. She is 75% through a quartet of novels that are named for the seasons. Each captures the beauty and lightness of Vivaldi’s famous concerto and the heft of T.S. Eliot’s poetic quartets. Spring seamlessly blends brutal reality and a dream-like state. Anchored in the current world, it unfolds in a Brexit obsessed United Kingdom, and yet it incorporates artists, live and dead, ranging from Katherine Mansfield to Rainer Maria Rilke to Tacita Dean. The scope and inventiveness of the writing are staggering.

The plot will sound very odd in a brief summary. Like many modern novels, it incorporates two separate narrative strands that come together somewhat unexpectedly but satisfactorily in the climactic scenes. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Richard Lease, a modestly famous filmmaker who produced some well-regarded highbrow TV shows in the 1970s and 80s. He is considering an offer for a new film project about an imaginary crossing of paths by Rilke and Mansfield in Switzerland in 1922. But Richard is unable to rouse his enthusiasm partly because of misgivings about who he would have to work with. More importantly, he is still not over the recent death of his screenwriter, Patricia Neal or Paddy, who was more than just his artistic partner for four decades. Richard mulls over memories of their work and life together, reliving conversations and episodes that invoke Charlie Chaplin, Beethoven and Shakespeare. He aimlessly boards a train to Scotland. There, in an act of despair, he lowers himself onto the train track in an attempted suicide .

Richard is saved by a magical 12-year old girl, Florence. Although the description is scant, she is preternaturally bright, articulate, and endowed with an inexplicable power to move people to do what she wants. She supposedly was able to enter a restricted Immigrant Retention Center unaccompanied and persuade the supervisor to order a cleanup of the bathrooms for all the detainees. One morning, Florence encounters Brittany Hall, who is on her way to work as a security guard in one of the notorious British detention centers. Her dehumanizing work with the inmates is grinding her down, the degrading surroundings are destroying her soul.  Florence and Brittany end up at a train station and in an impulsive act, Brittany follows Florence onto a departing that is heading off to Scotland. The warm interaction with Florence on the ride awakens Brittany’s submerged feelings of humanity. They end up at the same destination as Richard, and there Florence persuades him to climb back on to the platform and saves his life.  A reinvigorated Richard, Florence and Brittany meet up with another mysterious character, a woman operating a mobile refreshment stand. The four travel in her crowded truck to Culloden, the site of the disastrous clash during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1746 when the Scots were annihilated by the English army. There the story reaches its climax which I will not divulge in full. But simply said, in full sight of all the tourists attracted to the Culloden battlefield site, it does not end up well for Florence or her mother who suddenly appears on the scene.

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