Author: Ali Smith
Published: 20th October 2016
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“And whoever makes up the story makes up the world, Daniel said. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story.”
The first in a quartet of seasonally-themed novels, Autumn sets off with a clever, witty, warm, cold, clever, melancholic, hopeful look at the current state of Britain.
Opening with the repetition: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times”, Autumn by Ali Smith, washes you up onto a beach shore, with a man who thinks he is dying, surrounded by corpses. And in what seems to be a dream-like image of refugees washed up on the beach, the story sets the tone for what has been hailed as the first Brexit novel. Although it is much more than that.
Autumn tells many stories. At its centre, lies Daniel Gluck, a 101 year old man, lying asleep in a care facility, and Elisabeth Demand, a 32 year old junior lecturer in Art History, and previously Daniel’s neighbour. In what becomes a twisted maze of present day, memory and dream, we read of their friendship with one another, Daniel’s past, and Elisabeth’s life in an immediate post-Brexit England.
Ali Smith very cleverly weaves together a myriad of themes in this novel, lines being among the many of these. One of my favourite parts of the book is a three page-long list of what was happening “all across the country” after the Brexit vote.
“All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there,
a line you don’t cross here,
a line you better not cross there,
a line of beauty here,
a line dance there,
a line you don’t even know exists here,
a line you can’t afford there,
a whole new line of fire,
line of battle,
end of line,
The theme of lines and divides is prevalent throughout the novel, not only in the physical, but the invisible, societal sense. There are invisible lines put up in Elisabeth’s mother’s eyes as she does not agree with her teenage daughter and their very old male neighbour as best friends. There are lines between the past (Elisabeth’s mother tearing up with nostalgic memories of her childhood TV shows, and her preoccupation with her favourite antiques program, The Golden Gravel), and the present (Elisabeth herself remarking that its a “lovely day”). The novel even opens with lines, on that beach shore, where tourists and children are “holidaying up the shore from the dead”, while those dead bodies washed up on shore are marked as part of a clear other world.
Memories and Autumn
This novel is not, however, simply a political commentary on the immediate post-Brexit world. It is also a warm, clever, and often witty look at society, through the present and through memory. Elisabeth’s memories of her childhood, and her conversations and excursions with Mr Gluck are warm and innocent, and lay at the heart of the often cold and melancholic reflections about Great Britain’s mood after the vote. This is where, I think, the novel’s title really felt prominent, because Autumn is just that: it grows colder and more melancholic, and yet there is still a lingering warmth in the reds and browns of the leaves. The days are getting shorter, but they are not yet at their shortest.
A Novel to Explore
This is the first Ali Smith novel that I’ve read, and yet it felt like I had read many works at once. Autumn is the story of Elisabeth and Daniel. It is also the story of sixties pop artist Pauline Boty (never heard of her? don’t worry, I think that might be the point!) and of Christine Keeler (made famous in the sixties from what is known as the Profumo Affair). Despite the clear political vein of this novel, I think that a basic knowledge of the Brexit vote, and the complexity of emotions that resulted across the nation, is enough to go into this story with.
Autumn, at times, left me a little confused. Particularly towards the end, I found myself reading the same page a couple of times to keep up. This was also in light of Smith’s very stylised writing; it does not use quotation marks, it is not linear. I cannot tell you what this novel is all about, because it was about so many different things to, I think, many different people.
But, a little like a maze, this novel is one that calls out to be explored, and not to simply be read.