Uncertainty is the new norm. Nationalist rhetoric is rife. Donald Trump is running for the US presidency. It’s June 2016 and the Brexit referendum has dazed the international community, heralding the start of the United Kingdom’s glacial extraction from the European Union. Amid the turmoil, Scottish novelist Ali Smith releases Autumn, the first, she foreshadows, of a seasonal quartet intended to capture the unstable ‘state of the nation’. A playful yet disquieting story set against a backdrop of xenophobia and heightened security, it is promptly hailed as the ‘first great post-Brexit novel’. Smith begins writing voraciously, hurrying to keep step with reality, and releases Winter (2017) soon after. ‘God was dead’ begins the surreal, Dickens-inspired Christmas tale, one featuring a disembodied floating head and a piece of land suspended above the dining table.
And now we have Spring.
Richard Lease, an old television and film director based in Scotland, is abandoning his life. He has quit work on a spurious, sexed-up fictionalisation of the meeting of writers Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, and is mourning the death of his closest friend, Patricia ‘Paddy’ Heal. First, though, we meet Paddy, a witty, charismatic, preternaturally intelligent woman. She is also a scriptwriter, a rarity who, in her films, could make ‘something real happen’. Following her death, Richard becomes disillusioned and takes a train as far is it will take him.
Next we meet Brittany Hall, a ‘DCO’ at an ‘IRC’ run by the ‘HO’ employed by ‘SA4A’ – or, translated from the Orwellian, a detainee officer at an immigration centre. (The security firm SA4A, i.e. SAFER, is the erector of the mysterious, barbed-wire enclosure in Autumn and the employer of Arthur in Winter.) At the IRC, Brittany monitors the asylum seekers, those interned for ‘years, years and years’ in a place ‘built for 72-hour detention at most’. She is aware that ‘something terrible was happening’, either to herself or to the world at large, but now, as if ‘beyond perspex’, it feels ‘quite far away’. One day a young girl in a school uniform walks into the centre, bypassing security like a ghost. When she leaves, the manager orders all the toilets to be cleaned. No one knows why. Brittany soon meets the girl, a discerning twelve-year-old named Florence Smith, and together they too climb aboard a train.