Scottish novelist Ali Smith published this Man Booker Prize short-listed novel set in the autumn of 2016, in the very same year and season that it explores. Its punch and originality comes not only from Smith’s playful, poetic and non-linear writing style but also from its contemporaneous nature. Autumn is a novel that examines the here and now as Smith tries to make some sense out of a badly fractured post-Brexit Britain.
The UK is in pieces, shattered by the historic, once-in-a-generation and hideously divisive EU membership referendum. Daniel Gluck is a century old while Elisabeth Demand, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The novel explores their unlikely but enduring friendship, alternating between Elisabeth’s childhood and the current day.
Elisabeth first meets Daniel when she is eight and he inspires in her a lifelong passion for art, particularly Pop Art. Through his advice to ‘always be reading something. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant’, Daniel instills in Elisabeth a love of critical thinking. We discover their eccentric friendship and pasts through flashbacks and Elisabeth’s visits to the now 101-year-old Daniel as he lies dying in a care home. Daniel’s ageing reminds us that life is fleeting and ultimately is reduced to memories and dreams. Smith’s fascination with the concept of time and investigating the past through the present drives the entire novel.
Autumn is a moving meditation on a world growing ever more divided and exclusive and on what richness and worth are. Love is won, love is lost. Hope goes hand in hand with hopelessness. And the seasons keep on coming and going. Plots aren’t neatly tied up, nothing is linear and this of course is deliberate. Life is often incomplete. Everything is temporary. All you can do is go with the flow, and Smith won’t let us forget this uncomfortable truth.
The novel’s very title sums up the nostalgia this season brings every year as we say goodbye to the glory of a long summer. Are we saying goodbye to harmony as we enter a new, fractured post-Brexit age? Only time will tell. Autumn is the first in Smith’s proposed ‘seasonal quartet’: four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected, that will explore ‘the subjective experience of time, questioning the nature of time itself.’ I am very much looking forward to reading the next installment.
Autumn is published by Penguin, 259 pages