Autumn, by Ali Smith
A novel that seems to drift through a series of thoughts and scenes as though in a dream that it’s hard at times to realise where it is going. Autumn by Ali Smith’s Autumn is not an easy read as it stops and starts. There’s no overall plot other than to contrast overlapping visions of autumn and to slowly peel back the lives of the handful of characters. There are references to nature and John Keat’s poem on autumn while there’s the echoes of the novel’s role as a post Brexit novel.
Smith’s take is also on the autumn of Britain’s collective mentality in the months immediately after the referendum on membership of the European Community in June 2016. There’s a clear element of despair at the result in Smith’s prose as, “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.”
We meet Daniel Gluck who is unfeasibly old and a friend of the much younger Elisabeth Demand who has terrible problems at the Post Office when trying to get a passport. And there’s Pauline Boty a female pop artist that Elisabeth is studying and who was known to Daniel who seems to have got about a lot in his life.
Autumn’s most John Keats’ moments come in passages such as this at the end of part one: “A Minute ago it was June. Now the weather is September. The crops are high, about to be cut, bright, golden. November? Unimaginable. Just a month away.” It’s a beautiful if succinct chapter midway through. The chapter’s prose concludes: “The birds are on the powerlines. The swifts left weeks ago. They’re hundreds of miles from here by now, somewhere over the ocean.”
The novel references numerous writers and books from Charles Dickens in the opening line “it was the worst of times” to William Blake’s poem about the “grains of sand,” and even Huxley’s Brave New World and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
In a reflective, poetic and at times confusingly dream like novel there are several extremely funny moments such as the Post Office scene that has the feeling of a sketch by Victoria Wood about it. It’s an experience most can have sympathy with as Elisabeth attempts to have her application for a passport put through the Check and Send service. As the cashier measures her passport photo he says: “Your face is the wrong size.” And “Is your surname really Demand?” As the Post Office employee continues to play God and tick her off for being sarcastic when she doesn’t say where she plans to travel with her new passport.
In another sequence later on Elisabeth is in the kitchen with her mother when she recalls a one hit wonder from 1962, Summer Brother, Autumn Sister, written by Mr Gluck. The dialogue between her mum and Zoe her flatmate sparkles with authenticity and wit. “I’ve had a substantial career in maudlin, her mother says taking the computer. Has her mother been this witty all these years and Elisabeth just hasn’t realised?”
And there’s the story of Boty in these overlapping narratives, a model who has overtones of the Christine Keeler affair in the 1960s. These stories seem timeless and yet contemporary as they are linked together in a book which is very 2016 which seems to be the whole point of the the novel I eventually realised. A sort of poetic prose statement about Britain during the time of the referendum seen through the eyes of a mellow remainer.