Autumn by Ali Smith
(Penguin), Pp. 260
Shortlisted for The Booker Prize and hailed as the first post Brexit novel, Ali Smith’s Autumn shoulders a weight of expectation for a slim novel. While it stands steady on its exquisite legs, it is also part of a series of novels due to represent all four seasons. It recalls the ode to autumn with its mists and mellow fruitfulness; there is a sense of melancholy but it is also suffused with hope, colour and a love of all things bright and beautiful.
Elisabeth Demand befriends her elderly neighbour, Daniel Gluck, and slowly learns his stories, while he challenges her imagination and perceptions of society. Her mother is horrified that she chooses to spend time with an adult male and cannot conceive that it is entirely innocent. Is it? The novel flicks back and forwards through time but with helpful explanations such as ‘It was a Tuesday evening in April in 1993. Elisabeth was eight years old.’ Daniel described artworks and paintings to her, including the works of the first female pop-artist, Pauline Boty.
Elisabeth later becomes a lecturer in art history, two topics which are intrinsically intertwined. She was told by a lecturer that there were no female pop artists and she is determined to champion Pauline Boty, who refused to fit the boxes created for female artists and died prematurely in 1966. With her witty collages and subversive paintings, Boty becomes a symbol of all those who are “Ignored. Lost. Rediscovered years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered again years later. Then ignored. Lost. Rediscovered ad infinitum.” Time is fluid; it is linear but cyclical; very messy and frequently repetitive. Now Daniel is in a nursing-home coma and Elisabeth visits him, pretending to be family: he has erotic fantasies about which she will never know. He had experiences of the Holocaust, and there are clear parallels drawn between the treatment of foreigners then and now.
It is self-consciously literary and also aware of the cyclical nature of history. From the opening line – “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” – it is clear that everyone is feeling unsettled as the country tears itself apart.
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing… 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. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”
Britain has just voted to leave the EU. Half of the village isn’t talking to the other half. A mysterious barbed-wired compound has sprung up nearby complete with security cameras and patrolling guards. Elisabeth’s mother, who is obsessed with antiques, decides to get herself arrested by throwing items of historic significance at the enclosure, “bombarding that fence with people’s histories and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times”. A house in which immigrants live has the words GO HOME spray-painted on the wall. But later, the words, WE ALREADY ARE HOME, THANK YOU have been added, and bouquets of flowers left by supporters and well-wishers. There are seeds of hope and humanity scattered in this forlorn and morally bereft landscape.
Ali Smith acknowledges the pain of division and the beauty of inclusion. From nature with its seemingly haphazard approach to procreation and fertility, to the apparent clinical approach to grammar and semantics, she suggests that organic development will always triumph over control. Daniel dreams of becoming imprisoned in a tree and returning to the earth. Smith admires the polyglot of languages with words coming from all over the world (such as an intriguing section on a book young Elisabeth reads about a gymkhana).