by Ali Smith
I’ve been waiting a year to read a book like this. I only wish I’d read it three months ago, when the falling leaves outside could’ve matched those of this book. Or better still, a year ago, when this country made a historic decision that clearly weighed heavily on Ali Smith’s mind. Brexit prominently features in this novel. No matter what side of the vote you fell on, it cannot be denied that much social and political unrest persists in the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
This novel is, predominantly about an unlikely friendship. Elisabeth is nine-years-old when they move house, and Daniel, an ageing bachelor, becomes their next-door neighbour. Both lonely, for their part, it doesn’t take long for a connection to be made and one that will continue for decades to come.
“The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” (52)
The characters are inherently imperfect and complex – as you would hope and expect from contemporary literature. We only see Elisabeth and Daniel in part, never whole. We know that Elisabeth’s father is out of the picture, but never why. We know that Daniel lost the people he loved, but never how. This, added to the fragmentary nature of the work, imbues the novel with authentic emotional experience. – While we hope that others feel as we do, you can never truly know. It is fearful hope that leads us to love, friendship and trust. It is through this fragility that Smith calls on us to be brave.
The style is distinctly contemporary – like its subject matter. It is lyrical, rhythmic and littered with truncated poetry. Perspectives shift with grace and empathy. There is a wonderful cohesion to this piece. Embracing everything in its withering foliage, autumnal metaphors and similes trace and echo effortlessly throughout the narrative. It is natural, melancholic and vibrant.
“The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.” (259)
Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. The colours and the sounds of leaves upon the ground. So, naturally (pun intended), I loved the imagery used throughout Autumn.
The dialogue reads like a script, and I could imagine the scenes playing out on a stage or screen. Humour makes a bold appearance too and I found myself smiling broadly on several occasions. The book, on the whole, moves at a fast pace, but comes to a dead stop, from time to time. The contrast is beautiful, matching the ebb and flow of the seasons, which is doubly echoed by the lives of the characters.
The “problem” of immigration is constantly referred to both directly and indirectly. Sexuality also goes uncategorised for all the main characters. In this way, Smith is representing minority voices, while eschewing the notion of labelling that often creates hostility and mistrust. In this respect too, Smith’s is a distinct and proud modern voice.
“Autumn” promises to be the first in a quartet of novels that speak directly to the now of UK society. The second novel, “Winter”, is now out in hardback, and I will most certainly be picking it up. It is both fascinating and delightful to read something that feels so impressively contemporary. And with “Autumn” shortlisted for the Man Booker 2017, we can only hope great things are in store for the rest of this collection.