Open “Spring,” and words erupt off the page, a wide-ranging rant of demands and wants, as if the tantrum of our political moment has found a voice. But then! Another voice rises, all-powerful Mother Earth promising, in spite of humanity’s puny mewling and intransigence, to once more bring green spring out of the deadly mess we’ve made.
This is Ali Smith, the crazy-brilliant Scottish writer, so it’s a good bet there’s some method in the madness, even if it takes a while to emerge. And sure enough, we’re soon being led along by the fey figure who holds the book together, a 12-year-old girl named Florence whose mysterious story threads through the others we encounter along the way.
First there’s Richard, an older man and once-adventurous filmmaker, whose longtime collaborator and muse has recently died, amplifying his despair at trying to salvage a ridiculous film project about the writers Rainer Maria Rilke and Katherine Mansfield living in the same small Swiss town in 1922. “There’s no story,” he tells himself, standing on a train platform somewhere in the north of Scotland. “He’s had it with story. He is removing himself from story.”
Enter Florence, just in time; and from this desperate moment, foiled, Smith leads us back to the child’s first appearance in the life of another lost soul, Brittany, who works as a detainee custody officer at an immigrant deportation center run by SA4A, a sinister security service of Smith’s invention.
It’s a terrible place, where detainees — “deets” — are held in horrible conditions, and somehow a schoolgirl has managed to make her way in, past all the impenetrable layers of security, and convince the powers-that-be to clean up the toilets — a magical, if not miraculous feat. Also magically, Florence lures Brit into traveling to Scotland by train (no need of tickets or money for hotels, because, as Florence says, “Sometimes I am invisible”) toward the girl’s missing mother and, coincidentally, Richard.
“Spring” is the third volume in Smith’s seasonal quartet, and once more it immerses us in a world at odds with itself, full of the bluster, squaring off and divisiveness of Brexit and Donald Trump, and teeming with people displaced and fearful and angry. Everything and everyone is on the verge — of chaos, collapse, exile, but also, perennially, spring. “What if, the girl says. Instead of saying, this border divides these places. We said, this border unites these places. . .What if we declared border crossings places where, listen, when you crossed them, you yourself became doubly possible.”
“You’re being naive,” Brit responds . . . and yet. Chockfull of Smith’s joyous language, wordplay and aphorisms, snippets of pop songs and folktales, classical allusions and appreciations of artists from Rilke and Mansfield to the extraordinary cloud- and mountain-conjuring Tacita Dean, “Spring” is as fierce in its conviction and sure in its connections as that first, earthly voice that, after its vision of devastation, issues this promise: “I’ll be the reason your own sap’s reviving. I’ll mainline the light to your veins.”
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “World Like a Knife.”
By Ali Smith
Pantheon. 352 pp. $25.95