While this novel was promoted as the “first post-Brexit novel” it is far more than a story about opinions and divisions. Rather, it reads like poetry and narrative twisting together. The chapters are interspersed with reflections, lists, words, musings which create an impression rather than telling a straight line story.
But there is a story line, or rather two. Elisabeth (the spelling matters) is an art history lecturer struggling with the down-sizing and marginalising of her subject. The second story is about a 101-year-old Daniel Gluck who was her neighbour and babysitter in her childhood. He is now in a care home and she acknowledges the part he played in introducing her to, “arty art,” in which she majored at university. Even the subject of her dissertation, Pauline Boty, is based on a real person and the real events surrounding her life and works. It is this movement between worlds which are real and imagined that gives the book such beauty.
Autumn is the first of a quartet based on the seasons. Ali Smith has already established herself as an inventive writer and the way she plays with words, thoughts, time and events is innovative and exciting. This is not a straight-line story. The plot moves forward but slips sideways to fill in the spaces at the edges. Amid such innovation she uses an ageless framing device for the overall story. At the beginning the young Elisabeth is asked for a” Portrait in Words of my next door neighbour”. Towards the end of the story we are given the completed exercise. It is written in the unpunctuated language of a young girl, but the portrait includes much of what has been uncovered in the story.
I enjoyed Autumn more as a drifting, reflective read than a gripping tale. It reminded me that language can be so much more than words on a page. Language can paint, can emote, can create.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd