About the Book
A breathtakingly inventive new novel from the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both
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 installment 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 book is simply stunning! I think it may be my new favourite by Ali Smith and is a real contender to be my book of 2016.
Ali Smith captures the way autumn feels – the drift away from the warm summer and the move towards winter. It’s written in a literal sense but also metaphorically to mimic what is happening politically at the moment. There is a real sense of the aftermath of Brexit in this novel, without it ever feeling like you’re being hit over the head with it all over again. There’s a subtly to it – the graffiti on a neighbour’s wall, the electric fence that appears near where the characters live. It’s beautifully written and leaves you feeling really quite meloncholy at times.
The novel opens with a man washed ashore. He is naked and lost, and becomes aware of people he vaguely knows passing him by. He isn’t sure how old he is but feels as if his body is younger than he was before. It seems he’s in some kind of limbo. At the same time a young woman is waiting in the Post Office to renew her passport, but her turn never seems to come. She is also in limbo. There is a sense that neither of them is sure of who they are, or where they are going. Perhaps a reference to the sense of isolation people are feeling in the current climate, and also the sense of being other in a world that is feeling less inclusive than before. It certainly reflects the limbo we all feel right now as we wait to see what will happen next.
We then learn of the two main characters and how they met. Daniel is around 80 years old and lives next door to the child Elisabeth. She wants to go round to his house and have him answer questions for her school project but her mother is adamant that she mustn’t. It feels like her mother is very distrustful of the man next door but it’s never stated why, it left me feeling like he was perhaps an other, an outsider – or maybe that Elisabeth and her mother are outsiders. There are other references to Elisabeth as a child feeling like people are looking at her in the street. The relationship that builds between Daniel and Elisabeth when they finally do meet is so lovely. He always speaks to her like she is his equal, and not a child, and they connect on so many levels. It was heartwarming to read how the relationship lasted and how Elisabeth is determined to keep the bond between them.
This book becomes very meta at points and I loved that aspect. The way that Daniel describes a painting to Elisabeth, and then says it isn’t real but she really feels like she has seen it. Then later she sees it reproduced and knows it is real. This made me go search online for Pauline Boty so that I could see the paintings after having such a clear image in my mind. I felt how I was sure Elisabeth must have felt when she finally saw them, because they were like a daydream made real. I felt sure that I had seen them before, like I knew them. Yet I was also seeing them at a step removed – paintings through a computer screen, so even then I’ve not seen the reality of the work, just as Elisabeth hadn’t either. I wasn’t there, in the moment when the paintings existed in a studio – a real awakening to the idea of a set moment in time and how when something has passed, it has passed. We can seek it out, we can reflect but once the leaves have fallen from the trees, they are gone.
Autumn jumps back and forth in time throughout, filling in small details and reminding us of what came before and what came after. This is beautifully illustrated in a moment where Daniel throws his watch in the air to demonstrate to Elisabeth how easily and quickly time flies. Ali Smith’s writing is profound and stunningly beautiful throughout. I’m still thinking about this book weeks after finishing it, and I’m sure it will be with me for a long time to come.
I can’t wait to read the next instalment in this series now! I’ve been recommending this novel to everyone and have already bought a few copies to give as Christmas gifts.
I received a copy of this book from Penguin Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.