by Ali Smith
“News right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.”
Widely regarded as the first post-Brexit novel, Autumn is the first title in ‘Seasonal’, Ali Smith’s cyclical tetralogy. It was written rapidly following the UK’s 2016 European Union membership referendum, at a time when many of us were reeling from the outcome, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year.
At the heart of the story is a touching friendship that develops between an eight-year-old girl: Elizabeth – a bright but directionless millennial living with her divorced mother – and an eccentric elderly neighbour: Daniel Gluck, who dwells alone with his music, books and art collection. She cannot realise it at the time, but this will be the defining relationship of her life.
There is, however, nothing linear about Autumn. We move back and forth in time from 1993 to the avant-garde sixties, then forward to the summer of 2016 before returning to the early nineties and so on. Woven into a playful narrative bursting with themes of love, memory and despondency is an engaging backstory, which incorporates the extraordinary life and work of Pauline Boty – a founder of British pop art and the sole female painter in the British wing of the movement. The effect of this cultural and emotional brew can sometimes be unsettling, though it is also gratifyingly quirky.
“It is a Wednesday, just past midsummer. Elisabeth Demand – 32 years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do … has gone to the main Post Office in the town nearest the village her mother now lives in.”
Smith had apparently considered writing a seasonal series of books for about twenty years before doing so. In interviews she portrays the novel as being about “the shortness of life”. In many ways it is an out of sequence string of vignettes or memoryscapes set in a country seemingly divided against itself – yet amid the incredulity, it offers solace, even hope.
Following immediately after the critically acclaimed, 2015 Baileys prize-winning How to Be Both, it is inevitable some of Smith’s regular readers may find Autumn a little too off-centre for their tastes. Nonetheless, I found her tale poignant and amusing, eminently quotable and a wonderfully inventive play on language. Furthermore, it perfectly articulates the conflicted post-Brexit mood of the British people.
“All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. 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.”