Autumn by Ali Smith, review by Bruce Jacobs
The stunning Autumn is the first of a projected quartet of seasonal novels by Scottish author Ali Smith, whose earlier novels Hotel World, The Accidental and How to Be Both were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Set in the factional, jingoistic post-Brexit United Kingdom--where "what had happened whipped about itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm"--Autumn is a compact story of the unlikely friendship of two neighbors: Daniel, an iconoclastic old man with a house full of art, books and music, and Elisabeth, an impressionable, lonely young woman, 70 years his junior, who harbors a festering grudge against her annoying, self-serving mother. A marginally employed adjunct lecturer in art history, Elisabeth has returned to her mother's house to spend time with now 101-year-old Daniel. He lives in a nursing home where he sleeps through flashing images of his life more often than he listens to Elisabeth read Dickens to him--although he processes enough to conjure his own darker version of A Tale of Two Cities.
In a vibrant, unsettling dream sequence, Smith opens Autumn with Daniel's vision--"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times"--before shifting to a scene with Elisabeth reading Brave New World while waiting in the bureaucratic passport renewal office. From there, Smith launches a sobering chapter that highlights the alarmingly fractious British social climate (e.g., "All across the country, money money money money. All across the country, no money no money no money no money.... All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there.")
However, Autumn is hardly a polemic. Lush, lyrical, smart, funny, erudite--like the season itself, Smith's startling novel is a beautifully colored mosaic of time passing and life recycling. It references Dickens and Huxley, as well as Joyce, Keats, Plath and Dylan Thomas. Smith effectively weaves in historical allusions to classic films, the Christine Keeler scandals and 1960s British pop artist and collagist Pauline Boty, who died of cancer at age 28. Daniel introduces Elisabeth to Boty's work and in the process opens her eyes to the importance of seeing the world as an artist might, of hearing how words' meanings might mutate through puns and rhymes, of healing oneself by caring for others.
The backdrop of Autumn might be social disarray, but the story is one of life going on and the seasons passing. As Smith writes toward the end of her novel: "Here's an old story so new that it's still in the middle of happening, writing itself right now with no knowledge of where or how it'll end." If fall is the twilight of the year, what will Smith's long cold winter bring--and better yet, her spring and summer?