Hamish Hamilton, $29.99, pb, 384 pp
I could begin with a lark stitched into a letter. It’s 2020 and ‘all manner of virulent things’ are simmering. Sixteen-year-old Sacha writes to Hero, a detained refugee. She wants to send ‘an open horizon’. Unsure what to say to someone suffering injustice, she writes about swifts: how far they travel, how they feed – and even sleep – on the wing. The way their presence announces the beginning and ending of summer ‘makes swifts a bit like a flying message in a bottle’. Maybe they even make summer happen.
Sacha writes about Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins ‘Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music’. It says, Sacha thinks, ‘what would happen if you split a lark open? I have a vision that if you were to open a swift, metaphorically of course, the rolled-up message they carry inside them is the unfurled word. SUMMER.’
Or I could begin with Hannah in Nazi Germany, where the simmering virulence is fascism, as Ali Smith loops a thread between ‘unprecedented’ times and what precedes them. Hannah is one of the dazzling-minded, blazing characters who recur in Smith’s ouevre. She is central to this work of emotional courage and encouragement.