Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith
I first heard of Autumn, as many others, when I went to Ali Smith's event last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival. There, she told us she was working on a Seasonal Quartet; four books that take their themes and titles from the four seasons. She had just finished the first of the four, Autumn, and was holding in her hand an A4 printout of the manuscript. She proceeded to treat us to the first glimpse ever into her novel. The passage she chose turned out to be an almost stand-alone piece of writing, only loosely related to the plot of the novel. It was about Brexit. At that point, the vote was still barely two months in the past, and very present in people's minds and conversations.
Autumn is a bit different from previous Ali Smith novels. It's still an Ali Smith novel though. The story follows the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel. When Elisabeth was a child and Daniel was an old man, they used to be neighbors. Now he is 101 years old, and spends most of his time sleeping while Elisabeth visits him and reads to him. Their relationship is explored by going back and forth between the past and the present and everything in-between. There is the usual word play, clever puns, metafictional element, 60s nostalgia, and most of all, those moments of simple, everyday, human connection that Ali Smith does so well. But this one is a much more urgent novel then her previous work. The pace is slow as always, but the themes are very immediate. One subplot is about Elisabeth going through the process of renewing her passport, and another is about her mother moving to a small town, and nearby they have built an electrified fence.
Xenophobia and alienation are very prominent, but so is art and its function in society at large. Elisabeth is writing (in the past) her dissertation on Pauline Boty, the only female member of the British Pop Art movement and a figure that had been often disregarded by "experts" of this topic. Elisabeth is interested in her after coming across photographs of Pauline's paintings in old magazines, and recognizes them as some of the paintings Daniel used to describe to her when she was a child. As it turns out, Daniel knew Pauline briefly in the 60s, before she died. All of these elements are interwoven in a narrative that travels through time and achieves a thematical cohesion that challenges expectations.
Autumn is definitely one of Ali Smith's finest works, and its strong suit is the fact that her voice is very present in the reading experience. When the novel approaches the aforementioned themes of Brexit, xenophobia, and division, it feels like you're getting an almost-live commentary from Ali Smith on the current sociopolitical situation in Britain. That alone is a reason to read Autumn as soon as possible, as its sequel, Winter is already here.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.