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Hard to review, beautiful to read: Ali Smith’s Autumn

I’ve been wanting to read Ali Smith’s Autumn for months, simply because everything she writes is gold.  But I forgot about it for a bit, and in July it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Must read Autumn, I said to myself, then forgot again. In September it was shortlisted for the Prize. Really must read Autumn, I repeated to myself and actually remembered to request it from the library. It came into my possession, poetically, just as the Man Booker Prize was announced earlier this month. Autumn didn’t win, but it doesn’t matter – this is a beautiful book. I love it to pieces. I want everyone to know how great it is, but I’ve realised that it’s a really hard book to review. So bear with me*.

Autumn centres on the unlikely friendship between Elisabeth Demand and her elderly neighbour Daniel Gluck. Elisabeth meets Daniel when she’s 8 years old and he’s in his seventies. From their first meeting, they have an easy, deeply respectful connection:

Very pleased to meet you both. Finally

How do you mean, finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago.

The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

He held his hand out. She got up, crossed the distance and held her own hand out. He shook her hand.

 

The narrative moves fluidly and frequently between the present, with Daniel in a care home dreaming about his death and Elisabeth visiting him there, and the time Daniel and Elisabeth spent together over the years.

This is the first reason why Autumn is difficult to review – the story line is not linear. Each chapter jumps to different points during the characters’ lives and it’s only over the course of the whole book that we’re able to piece together the nature of their friendship. Importantly, this circuitous narrative journey about Elisabeth and Daniel’s relationship is the very point of the novel.

Ali Smith has spoken about how, although we construct our personal histories in a chronologically frame, time doesn’t work that way. ‘We’re time-containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures (and also the pasts and futures of all the people who made us and who in turn we’ll help to make) in every one of our consecutive moments / minutes / days / years, and I wonder if our real energy, our real history, is cyclic in continuance and at core, rather than consecutive’, she said in an interview with Penguin. This philosophy underpins the whole novel, and it is this that makes the novel so special.

Time travel is real, Daniel said. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.

 

The second reason Autumn is difficult to properly convey (bear with me*) is that it has so many layers. For instance, the book considers 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 won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU?

 

But this isn’t a book about Brexit. In the same way, the book delves into the 1960s scandal involving Christine Keeler, as well as the work of pop artist Pauline Boty, yet it isn’t a book about the Profumo Affair or art history. These mini-stories are threaded through the main narrative, looping through Daniel and Elisabeth’s lives, giving greater texture to their relationship.

If I’m making this book seem esoteric and impenetrable, it’s not (bear with me*).  There are moments of genuine comedy that tie the characters to common, tedious encounters we can easily relate to.  Like when Elisabeth is trying to renew her passport at the Post Office: she takes a ticket and waits (‘I’ve read nearly a whole book while I’ve been waiting here this morning, Elisabeth says… Have you ever thought of opening or installing a small library?’), and the clerk rejects her passport photo (‘Not good, the man says. I’m afraid not good at all. Your face is the wrong size. How can my face be the wrong size? Elizabeth says…. He writes in a box next to the word Other: HEAD INCORRECT SIZE’.)

Elisabeth’s mum is also often unconsciously funny in her weary, jaundiced way: ‘I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says’.

In fact, all the characters are real and lovable, even the descriptions of the unprofessional staff at the care home are done fondly (‘the woman at reception doesn’t even glance up. She is watching someone get garrotted on Game of Thrones on her iPad’).

Autumn is poignant, fun and breathtakingly original. I liked how it made me feel – hopeful, reassured and somehow joyful. Even better, the second novel in this ‘seasonal quartet’, Winter, is due out this week. I’ll certainly be prioritising this next installment; I’ve a feeling reading these two books contiguously will work well. Perhaps next time round though, I’ll do a better review and you won’t need to bear with me.

*I love this phrase since Sally Hawkin and Eddie Marsan’s brilliant scene in Happy Go Lucky. (Scott: Bear with me. Poppy: Is there? Where is he?)

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.

4 Comments

  1. I love that quote from Smith about time and personal histories – so true. I still haven’t read any Smith (despite having How to be Both in my TBR stack for ages!).

    • If you like writing that ‘pushes boundaries’ (terrible expression but hopefully you know what I mean), then Smith is at the top of her game.

  2. Wonderful review. I really enjoy Smith but haven’t read her for while. I need her back in my life!

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