Ali Smith’s Autumn is the first novel to be published in her seasonal-quartet series. It deals with a plethora of themes from the political debris of Brexit to coming to terms with your own mortality. “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” is how Smith chooses to paraphrase the famous Dickens quote. It’s Autumn: the season of change, the season where things “fall apart.” Slowly falling apart, and sitting someplace between this world and the next, is one of the main characters: Daniel Gluck. Daniel is having vivid, philosophical dreams in his state between living and dead. The opening chapter leaves him washed up on the shore, “a punctured football with it’s stitching split.” As Daniel makes his own subconscious walk through his past and present self, so too does our other protagonist, and close friend of Daniel’s, Elisabeth.
The relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is unlikely, touching, and–in a novel that changes time and place continuously–remains the common thread that pulls the whole thing together. There are some beautiful, heartfelt moments that particularly stand out in my reflections on the book. Smith’s writing can, within the seasonal series as a whole, go to surreal, metaphorical places that aren’t always grounded in a specific time or place to the plot. One such moment is when Daniel, in his suspension between living and dying, encounters an omnipotent voice. God? Kind of, but not exactly. “Where do I start?” The voice then reels off a poetic list: “I’m your other. I’m the coughing through the wall. I’m the cough. I’m the wall.”
“We have to have hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.”Ali Smith — Autumn
The references to Brexit and the broader questions of change that it provokes connects the story firmly to ‘now’. And they were designed that way: in an interview with the Guardian, Smith reveals that the entire seasonal series was intended to be published very close to the time of their writing, thus, “returning to the notion of ‘the new.'” The text feels relevant not only for it’s political references but it’s ability to capture the mood of recent times. Whatever your political opinion, those of us on this small island – and beyond – have all been victim to Brexit Fatigue at one point or another. The politics aren’t preachy, nor do they sit awkwardly within the text, as if forced to be there: they form the backdrop to the story in the same way that recent events in the news form the backdrop to our own lives.
Another highlight of the text includes Smith’s explorative writing style. Smith is always adding ‘fun’ to her writing, switching between time and places with a knowing nod. “Here’s an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening,” she writes in one opening of a chapter. Her writing and the plot, however fluid, remain relatively easy to follow and it’s almost immediately identifiable when a narrative shift is made.
Though undoubtedly not a book for everyone, this novel feels refreshingly connected to our time when compared to a lot of its contemporaries. The imagery and the use of metaphors left lasting portraits in my mind, as is common with this seasonal series: Winter‘s disembodied head that follows its protagonist being perhaps the most overt of them all. However, Autumn remains, in my mind, freely, and deliberately, left to the reader’s interpretation. Overall, Smith’s wit, talent and artistic prowess shine in this seasonal love letter to Autumn.