Book Review

Autumn by Ali Smith


Ali Smith’s Autumn was the fifth book I read from this year’s Booker shortlist.  I’ve not read her previous works – I tried How to be Both which won the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction in 2015, but didn’t finish it, and so it was with some trepidation that I started Autumn.

Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy and the colour-hit of Pop Art (via a bit of very contemporary skulduggery and skull-diggery), Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.

Autumn is the first instalment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.

This is a difficult book to review, which is at least partly because a) I felt that I didn’t entirely got what it was trying to do, and b) I didn’t particularly enjoy it, which is undoubtedly connected to point a).

The main element of the plot focusses on the platonic relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel, or Mr. Gluck.  Daniel was Elisabeth’s neighbour when she was a little girl, and became a de facto babysitter when her mother was absent, despite her mother’s concerns about an elderly gentleman taking such interest in a young girl (it’s not that kind of book).  In the present day, Daniel is in a care home and in a period of prolonged sleep, and Elisabeth visits him and reads to him as often as she can.

It’s told out of sequence, and jumps between the present day and Elisabeth’s childhood, and whilst I don’t normally mind novels that move around in time, this one never really came together to form a strong narrative.  It’s more a series of vignettes focussed on these two characters, as well as snapshots of Brexit Britain and the state of the nation in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, with some art history thrown in for good measure.  As such, the story never really gets going, and Elisabeth and Daniel weren’t fleshed out enough for me to feel invested in either of them.

Autumn has been hailed as the first Brexit novel, and it was published very shortly after the referendum (October 2016, I think).  I liked Smith’s description of the country following the vote, of which this is a small sample:

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 lost.  All across the country, people felt they’d really won.

Given the extremely close result, I do feel that this sums it up quite nicely.  Similarly, I thought that Elisabeth’s choice of reading material – Brave New World, at one point – was cleverly done, if not entirely subtle.

So, whilst there were aspects of Autumn the I did enjoy, in particular Smith’s clever wordplay and the poetic nature of the prose, I felt that the overall result lacked cohesion, and whilst I know that some readers loved it, this one just wasn’t for me.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐

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