Autumn, also often called ‘the first great Brexit novel’, tells the story of an extraordinary friendship: a love between Daniel, who is 101 when the books begins, and Elisabeth, who is 69 years younger. Through describing their story, moving between pre- and post-Brexit Britain, Ali Smith gives a brilliant portrayal of our current society.
Those among you who have been following my blog for a while know that I love Ali Smith – I’m going to a Man Booker Prize reading the night before the winner is announced and couldn’t be more exited – so it won’t be a surprise if I reveal that I loved this book.
BUT, not just because I love Smith’s writing and storytelling ability. This novel just hits home. It gives a very critical view of how we treat each other and how we shape (and are shaped) our identities.
There are moments where Smith makes it very clear that she doesn’t agree with certain views, such as when “GO HOME” is written on a house (the response: “we are already home thank you”). And when Elisabeth needs a new passport, we get how absurd bureaucratic business can be. Elisabeth head is for example “too big” (on her photograph) and she has to measure it again and again, but then her hair is ‘too close’ to her face. The first scene also gives a disturbing portrayal of our times, with corpses of refugees washing up on a shore where people are sunbathing and playing and who couldn’t care less.
At other times, Smith gives more subtle reflections. Pauline Boty, a founder of the pop art movement, gives us reason to reflect on what makes our history, as Elisabeth is told that there were no ‘real’ female pop artists, and what it means to be a woman in general.
And as Ali Smith often does, there are wonderful remarks about the news, viewing the world, storytelling and reading. She refers to the murder of Jo Cox last year about which Elisabeth remarks:
“A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.”
And Daniel says the following to Elisabeth:
“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.”
But this isn’t a ‘we’ve been beaten and things are going to be terrible’ novel. It’s also a novel about hope. This hope comes from our loved ones. As everything else withers away, we should (and can) get hope from those people. As Daniel says:
“We have to 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.”
Oh, and by the way, Autumn is the first of four novels with the next one, called Winter, coming out this November. I’m pre-ordering it right now!