Smith, Ali

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Dec-02-2019


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.


The abbreviated plot summary cannot do justice to the complicated yet coherent narrative structure. The beauty of the allusions to historical figures and works of art is ingenious. Yet, its engagement with the tense world in the fall of 2018, is total and seamless. The prose shifts from violent profanity to staccato texting to ethereal descriptions of Tacita Dean’s pictures of clouds and mountains. The characters sound unreal but they are palpable, and the conditions of their lives are described in photographic detail. The book is worth reading for its simultaneous artistry and timeliness.

But why annotate it for the Database? The need for human interaction is a key element in the story. But I think it is a book about hope. At first blush, this seems implausible. The ferocity of current political discourse is squarely confronted. The horrible inhumanity and demonization of immigrants in wretched detention centers is described with full force. The penultimate ending is demoralizing. Yet, the book title is ultimately the touchstone. Despite everything, spring will always come around after the cold and barren winter and renew expectations of warmth and new growth. In a novel whose scope includes the most destructive features of modern society, Smith is able to infuse small day-to-day events and artifacts with meaning and optimism--a book purchased with a first earned pound, the Outlander TV series that has made Scotland a trendy tourist destination and Culloden a household word in the U.S., the contents a school girl’s notebook -- all provide support for people to navigate the world and see a way forward.

And this is why I suggest that this book be mandatory reading for medical students and trainees in all disciplines. Doctors confront patients every day and only rarely can they successfully arrest disease and restore full health. Instead, they usually pull together a patchwork of interventions and treatments to hold the line. Most patients know this. Yet they seem to hope for more. How do we physicians manage these expectations?

Patients will always have hope of restoration of well-being, an opportunity to be whole again and feel normal. Smith knows we are hard wired as humans to anticipate that things will get better, just as we expect spring to come each year. But we are also modest. Her book makes physicians appreciate that hope is often not quite as grandiose in the mind of the person in front them on the bed or examining table as it is in their own minds as they listen to the words of their patients. We doctors often project bigger hopes onto our patients than they have for themselves. It can be humbling to realize that the person we are treating may have a more realistic expectation of what to hope for. As one character says when describing true hope, it is “actually a matter of the absence of hope.” Richard fondly replays a conversation with Paddy when she explained the nickname she gave Richard, Doubledick. She tells him of the story by Dickens in which a character with that name is confronted with a moral dilemma. In describing the final denouement, Paddy says, “War won’t stop… but enmity can.” That is precisely the lesson for us physicians. Transforming the words of literature into terms of healing, we can say, illness won’t go away, but the pain and suffering can be lessened. That is truly something to aspire to, no matter what is happening in the world around us or inside the clinic. I hope we can read Ali Smith’s wise words, have the patience to hear and understand our patients’ hopes more clearly, and help them achieve it.


Pantheon Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count