Posted on February 10, 2018
5. ‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith
I’m a little late to the party with Ali Smith’s seasonal ‘state of the nation’ series: Autumn was released in 2016, and the sequel, Winter, came out last year. But better late than never, and even if these books are best read in the year of their release, they’ll always be worth it because Smith’s writing is timeless. She finds the universal in the specific.
Autumn follows two main characters: Daniel, coming up on 100 years old and dying in a nursing home; and Elisabeth, 32, a junior lecturer in art history, and Daniel’s old neighbour and dear friend. The book charts their relationship, from when they met when Elisabeth was a child, to their reunion towards the end of Daniel’s life. All of this is told against the backdrop of the summer of 2016 and the historic (for all the wrong reasons) Brexit referendum. This is the beauty of Ali Smith’s writing: far from shying away from details that might date her work, she embraces them wholeheartedly and stares contemporary problems right in the face.
“It’s funny to be sitting on such an uncommunal communal chair.”
We jump back and forth in time in this novel as we dip into Daniel and Elisabeth’s memories, and there are also some quite trippy dream sequences. Smith weaves together the history of pop art, conversations about storytelling, and political scandals from the 1960s. I often wonder how Ali Smith writes like this, how she decides what makes it in and whether it all means something – but of course it does. She’s Ali Smith. She knows what she’s doing. And the fact that it all feels like it’s erupting spontaneously from some bottomless well of creativity, rather than being carefully crafted, is just further testament to her genius. She makes it look easy.
As ever, Smith’s writing is rich with symbolism – some parts more heavy-handed than others. For example, Elisabeth’s surname is ‘Demand’ (appropriate to the self-centred entitlement that characterised some elements of British society during the Brexit vote), but she says that it comes from ‘de Monde’, meaning ‘of the world’ or ‘of the people’, which is clearly a more inclusive interpretation. There’s also a pretty cool moment with a border fence and some antiques – not subtle but still extremely enjoyable.
This is a novel of contrasts. There’s boundless nature versus bounded politics, seeing versus blindness, humanity versus bureaucracy, nationalism versus globalism. Smith sets up nostalgic images of Englishness and then questions what they’re for, asks us what we’re protecting with our push for isolationism and whether it’s really worth it. And at the core of it all is Elisabeth and Daniel’s unlikely yet powerful friendship. Autumn isn’t driven by plot; it is instead a patchwork of images (beautifully told) designed to make us explore our own memories and make us think. Once again, Smith has written something that will probably change the way you look at the world, and that will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page.
“Then she glances her whole self back down into the book.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy the book here.