Reviewed by Clare Rowland
Autumn is the first of four books in a planned series of novels by Ali Smith named after the seasons and which focus on how we experience time. Set during the fallout of the Brexit referendum result in 2016, it follows the friendship between Elisabeth Demand, a 32-year-old history-of-art lecturer, and her eccentric 101-year-old former next-door neighbour Daniel Gluck, who is spending his dying days in an assisted care facility.
Autumn is probably the first novel to be published by a major author which directly tackles the aftermath of Brexit – the first of many to come over the next few years, I suspect – and it is a brilliant place to start if you want to try and make sense through the power of fiction of some of the extraordinary things that have happened in recent months. The contemporary references include the murder of MP Jo Cox a week before the referendum was held, while there is also some brilliant satire in the post office scenes when Elisabeth is fighting through layers of bureaucracy in her attempts to renew her passport. Smith perfectly captures the sense of anger among Remain voters, th addictive consumption of social media and the general post-truth atmosphere in a divided society reacting to a constant cycle of breaking news stories:
“It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.”
Although the themes surrounding the consequences of Brexit are likely to generate the most attention, the book isn’t dominated by these events and is bursting with other ideas from the weighty (the significance of time and memory, the refugee crisis) to the trivial (the number of antiques programmes on TV). As well as current events, there are several episodes from Elisabeth’s childhood (she was born in 1984, of course,) and through Daniel’s art collection she becomes increasingly fascinated by the life and work of little-known British pop artist Pauline Boty, who tragically died at the age of 28 in 1966. As with The Accidental and her Baileys Prize-winning novel How to be Both, Smith’s signature fragmented prose style is dominated by inventive wordplay based on rhymes and puns and varied experimentation with language, form and structure. Consequently, it seems unlikely that Autumn will convert those who didn’t get on with Smith’s previous books but it will certainly please her existing fans.
Smith has written a highly contemporary novel which I believe will remain relevant far beyond this year. The next three books are said to be stand-alone but interconnected novels and I can’t wait to see what Smith has to offer in Winter, Spring and Summer. Of the five Man Booker Prize longlisted titles I’ve read, Autumn is one of my favourites, so I’m pleased it’s on the shortlist.
Clare blogs at A Little Blog of Books, where a version of this review first appeared.
Ali Smith, Autumn (Penguin, 2017). 978-0241973318, 272 pp., paperback.
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