As ever, Ali Smith shows off her prodigious talent for challenging the novel form. In Autumn, she focuses on themes readers will be familiar with from previous novels: the vital importance of reading and art, relationships that don’t meet conventional expectations, the gaze, and the mutability of time. Set shortly after the Brexit referendum, she moves between characters, and jumps forwards and backwards across years and decades to create a flickering world where time stretches and contracts. ‘Time travel is real…We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.’ At the heart of the novel is the unconventional relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel who met when she interviewed him for a school project about neighbours; she was a child and he already middle aged, but it was a meeting of minds that gradually turned into love.
When the novel begins Daniel is in a nursing home dreaming, in the ‘increased sleep period’ that happens when people are ‘close to death’ and Elisabeth is an adult. In a faintly menacing scene the box-ticking mentality of many contemporary jobs is sent up as Elisabeth attempts to renew her new passport. ‘This isn’t fiction, the man says. This is the Post Office.’ Since the vote to leave the E U everyone is in a ‘sullen state’, neighbour against neighbour and ‘All across the country there was misery and rejoicing.’ The shocking death of the M P Jo Cox hardly registers because news is changing so rapidly ‘like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.’ As well as the refugee crisis, zero hours jobs, student debt and Brexit there is also the ominous ‘wedge’ of lies between people, and the ‘end of dialogue’ and trust – the insidious ‘fake news’ under Trump. Everywhere there are fences, both literal and metaphorical.
When Elisabeth finds out that Daniel, who she’s not seen for several years, is gravely ill, she goes to sit by his bedside and waits for him to wake up, with his usual playful greeting: ‘What you reading?’ Hope comes from reading and from art. ‘Always be reading something,’ Daniel tells Elisabeth ‘Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will be read the world?’ I was fascinated to discover the pop artist Pauline Boty and to see how, as so often happens with women, she was largely forgotten after her early death, despite her ground breaking work. It is Boty’s art, made by ‘a woman full of joy’, that Ali Smith holds up as a protest against the darkness. She wanted to be ‘accepted as a human being, a person with a mind,’ who ‘really liked making people happy’. A hugely important message for these troubled times. Ultimately Autumn is about hope – we are in dire and quickly changing political times, but love and art can still triumph over our own transience.
published in paperback by Penguin, 2017
Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017