Autumn is the first in four planned seasonal books by Ali Smith. It’s a gorgeous look at the relationship between a young girl (and then woman) and an old man, set against the back drop of Brexit Britain.
We meet Elisabeth as a young girl (around 8, I think). Her and her mother move into a house next to an old man, Daniel Gluck. He is used as a free babysitter by Elisabeth’s mum. The old man and the young girl go on walks where they talk about language, and art, and life. These walks continue until Elisabeth is 15 or 16, by which time her mother has become worried about their friendship and had forbidden Elisabeth to continue this friendship, which she disregards. From early on in their friendship:
She saw through a crack in the curtains Daniel coming up the front path. She opened the door even though she’d decided she wasn’t going to. Hello, he said. What you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said. Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant. A constant what? Elisabeth said. A constant constancy, Daniel said.
By the end of the timeline of the story, he is 101, and Elisabeth is around 30. He is at the end of his life in a nursing home – trapped in a deep sleep, and she visits, reads to him and ponders the state of Britain after the EU referendum, and reflects on Daniel’s life and the profound effect his friendship has had on her.
Added to this, we get some dream like sequences from Daniel’s mind (in fact, this is how the novel opens with a dream sequence that takes us to the migrant crisis in Europe and to tourists trying to holiday on beaches with dead people washing up on the shore). We also learn more about Elisabeth’s mother and her activism in response to an immigrant detention centre being built near her home. There’s also a lot about the pop artist Pauline Boty and about the Keeler affair. It’s all quite disjointed, but it works well during the book.
The plot doesn’t run in a linear way, rather we get memories of different times throughout the present day story. The parts on art reminded me of How To Be Both – the only other Ali Smith I’ve read (review).
The post Brexit descriptions are stark and horrifying in the same way my mind is still horrified by the outcome of the referendum vote. It feels very current and accurately shows the tangle of thoughts that different people must be having over the same issues. It’s hard to describe, but some passages just broke my heart. This rant from late on in the book sums it up quite well:
Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on it’s way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how these liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.
Finally, the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is very touching, and a bit of a spoiler, but it remains innocent. I was so glad it didn’t take a different turn. From when they first meet:
Very pleased to meet you… Finally. How do you mean finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago. The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.
I can’t wait to read the next books in this series.
P.s. I was provided with a copy of Autumn by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley!