Author: Ali Smith
Autumn is a very contemporary novel, set in the post Brexit Britain, exploring the themes of feminism, of memories and the fragility of life.
Elisabeth Demand, who could actually have been ‘de Monde’, is a junior lecturer in the history of art, having accepted art as a vocation early on. This is because of the charming and supportive neighbour she had as a child, the ‘arty art’, Daniel Glutch.
Through her growing up years, the 80 yr old Daniel, who has been a songwriter, keeps Elisabeth company, spending time with her and having long conversations about art and life. She loses touch with him for a decade or so but eventually tracks him down to an old age care facility where he lays sleeping and dying.
‘Autumn’ is about that season in our lives, the long winding down of lives lived brilliantly. Light and breezy on the surface, it reaches deep down into our hearts when it explores memories, moments and fragile relationships that are out of the ambit of the normal, accepted norms.
Ali Smith is a Scottish writer whose book Autumn is considered the first post Brexit novel, touching upon the deep divide that UK saw over the referendum to withdraw from the EU.
It is an understated commentary, of the political situation in Britain. It also explores the themes of feminism through the fiesty British pop artist, Pauline Boty who is a thread that links Elisabeth and Daniel inextricably.
On the surface, the characters conform to societal norms but on a closer look they are all pushing their boundaries through their understanding of what’s right and how they want to live their lives. Wendy, Elisabeth’s mother courts arrest because she hates the fence and explores a same sex relationship late in her life. Elisabeth, the witty and the intelligent one, a ‘diificult’ child, has an undercurrent of understanding of the bleakness that surrounds her, affecting her directly and indirectly.
Autumn is a very much, of-our-times book, light, easy and seemingly mundane till we catch the brilliance of bold, unadulterated colours and forms/non forms and of images of images themselves. Art turns pop through an exploration of Pauline Boty’s work. Daniel is smitten and in turn, so is Elisabeth and those colours run right through the seeming shutting down of Daniel’s life.
The dialogue in the book is different. It is a free indirect discourse that brings us the feelings of the characters and yet keeps a distance from them.
What works well
In spite of the profound themes that are just beneath the surface, the book is very light, easy to read and contemporary. It has action inspersed with memories and musings and at no point does the gentle pace slacken so that we are led from one page to another regularly if not breathlessly.
The language is very evocative at places, especially when the paintings are described.
Pauline Boty, long gone is still a prominent character. She is there not only for art but richens the book in refering obliquely to the development of the world on her lines, modelled on her life. If she is a blast of colour, so are the other women, in their own ways.
What does not work so well
The voices of the different characters, especially the women, are all the same, nearly. Elisabeth is very witty, very intelligent and by the end of her book so is her mother who transforms from a selfish and neglecting mother to a caring and knowledgeable one. Her monologue of being sick of every thing just does not sound like her, the way her character has developed upto that point. Zoe, her mother’s fantasy star is much the same, witty, intelligent, discerning, just to a different degree. All the women seem to have been cast out of the same mould.
The child Elisabeth, at ten, is extremely clear. Her clarity of speech is disconcerting. Even at eight, her smarter self keeps peeping out from her little girl facade. Hannah, Daniel’s sister at twelve is like that too. Very witty, very smart, extremely well read and perspicacious.
I really wished some of the events in the book were followed through. We never find out about Hannah and how she died at a young age. We don’t know how it is that Daniel knows Pauline nor do we find out the cause of the rift between Elisabeth and Daniel that leads to their losing contact.
Autumn explores the fragility and the brilliance of lives, of bold individual choices and the boundaries set on them by states and political systems. The book is an explosion of colour; vibrant and pulsing with life.
I am definitely waiting for the next three books in this series, named after the seasons.