Review: Autumn, Ali Smith

I have always felt that Ali Smith was an author that I should find out more about but until now had never done anything about it.  Autumn is Smith’s seventh novel but is itself only the opening movement of a proposed quartet Seasonal, with Winter already released and a further two volumes promised.  More pertinently however, Autumn is also the first ‘Brexit novel’, published a mere four months after the referendum and showcasing a fascinating attempt by Smith to write a ‘state of the nation’ in fiction.  Yet, interviews reveal that Smith had been planning a seasonal sequence of novels for twenty years and that Brexit was more swept up by her writing rather than the other way around.  I came to the book with the feeling of being more than a little late to the party but still pleased that I had finally found my way.

Autumn is a novel preoccupied with time, less about plot and more concerned with the individual experience of existence.  It opens with with Daniel being plunged into a disorientating region outside of time, ‘He must be dead, he is surely dead, because his body looks different from the last time he looked down at it, it looks better, it looks rather good as bodies go … But pure joy! He’d forgotten what it feels like, to feel.’  Daniel is a century old and as we head back to reality, we realise that he is in a care home, stuck in the ‘increased sleep period’ which indicates that death is not far away.  Visiting him is Elisabeth, a woman in her early thirties who has known Daniel since she was a child.  She sits by his bedside, she stays with her mother, she is a part time Art History lecturer and in flashbacks we discover how she and Daniel met.

The bond between Elisabeth and Daniel, despite the near-seventy year age gap, is the warmest part of the novel and Smith creates some magnificent dialogue between the pair.  Meeting when the eight year-old Elisabeth moves in next door with her mother, Daniel asks her, ‘Your father’s not dead, though? […] No, Elisabeth said. He’s in Leeds.’  He takes on a mentor role, asking her consistently through the years about what she is reading, telling her ‘Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.’  The bond between the two of them is the moral heart of an otherwise rather bleak world.

It is a jolt to read a novel with quite so contemporary a setting.  Elisabeth tells Daniel about the murder of Jo Cox, ‘Someone killed an MP,” she tells him. “A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.’  There are strong and deliberate stylistic parallels between Autumn and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities when it comes to the description of Brexit, ‘All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won’.  As Elisabeth reports on her reading choices, Smith makes other sly references to the state of play.

One of the most truly magnificent moments of the novel however came from Elisabeth’s increasingly Kafka-esque attempts to renew her passport at the Post Office.  With her application rejected (HEAD INCORRECT SIZE), Elisabeth muses to the man behind the counter on the nature of narrative, ‘this notion that my head’s the wrong size in a photograph would mean I’ve probably done or am going to do something really wrong and illegal’, then moving on to consider other moments that would be portents of doom within a story, to which the clerk angrily replies that ‘This isn’t fiction. This is the Post Office’, seemingly indicating himself to be beyond even Smith’s control.

The question of who tells the story, who in effect controls the narrative, is a central one within Autumn.  Elisabeth rants about how the news simplifies or distorts complex situations.  The characters consistently misinterpret each other (Elisabeth’s mother distrusts Daniel as she assumes he must either be gay or a pedophile, Elisabeth and her mother constantly struggle to communicate).  The Brexit referendum is misread as a solution to the refugee crisis.  Elisabeth studies the forgotten pop-artist Pauline Boty and reflects upon the constant cycle of someone being forgotten and then rediscovered.  All the while, Daniel moves in and out of consciousness, in and out of time.

Autumn is a powerful novel, fiercely intelligent but highly aware of that fact.  I was reminded of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française and that similar sense of immediacy in writing, however like the latter, it has a slightly incomplete feel.  It is a snapshot rather than a panorama of Britain, capturing the fractured nation at a vulnerable moment in its history but able to offer few conclusions.  It sums up a mood, but then … what?  This may be the ‘first’ post-Brexit novel, but I still was not sure what wisdom Smith was really trying to share on the subject, other than that it had stirred up division.  Maybe Brexit is still too raw a subject for me to be able to accept authors trying to write about it, to explain it neatly – maybe it still seems like too much of a mess.  Or perhaps picking up Smith with one of her experimental pieces did not give me the clearest picture of her style as an author – or just maybe I need to read the rest of the quartet before I make my mind up.  Autumn is a book that is well worth reading now and will probably be equally well worth returning to in a few years to see how far we have come – I am both delighted to have read it and uncertain whether I warmed to it – in short, this is an ideal pick if you happen to be in a book group!

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Autumn by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton on October 20th 2016
Pages: 264
ISBN: 0241207002

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