Autumn by Ali Smith

One thing I’ve enjoyed about this past year of blogging has been that I’ve had an increased awareness of what newly published books to keep an eye out for. I’m not always in a position to buy them straight away, but it has meant that my Christmas list this year was essentially just a long list of hardback books I couldn’t buy for myself. Autumn was fairly near the top of the books I was really hoping for, so I was excited that to start reading it immediately. I had been intrigued by this first of a quartet of books that Ali Smith is releasing, especially after finding out that one aspect of the narrative would be about life in the UK after the Brexit vote.

The bulk of the narrative, however, is not about Brexit but about protagonist Elisabeth navigating her everyday life. The narrative jumps between the present and the past, with Elisabeth visiting her old friend Daniel in the hospice contrasted with her memories of befriending him when she was a child. Through Elisabeth’s memories, and the conversations she has with her mother throughout both the past and present narratives, it is clear that Daniel had a profound effect on Elisabeth’s life, though their friendship was far from healthy. Elisabeth’s life is messy: her relationship with her mother is messy; her relationship with Daniel is messy; and she doesn’t seem to have any other friendships to fall back on. Yet she is entirely engaging as a character, sarcastic and determined, if a little worn down.

The aftermath of Brexit is mentioned consistently in passing. I thought Smith captured the tone of the past few months really well; it was a bold topic to bring into her novel, but she brilliantly brought across the bleak unease that has permeated so much of the UK recently. As Elisabeth walks around the small town in which she grew up she begins to have the realisation that many of us had over the summer: that, although nothing had changed overnight, everything had in reality been changing for years beforehand. The vote brought it into the sharp light of day. The melancholy tone of Autumn was definitely very fitting, and I will be interested to see if Smith develops this theme further in the rest of the quartet.

Autumn is a hugely stylistic novel; in many ways, it reminded me of a piece of short fiction, imbued with a sense that every word and description has layers upon layers of meaning. This is seen most clearly in the chapters written from Daniel’s point of view as he lies in a coma-like state. His thoughts are muddled, jumping from person to person and place to place all within a few paragraphs, but even in the midst of this confusion there is something lyrical about his dreams. This fits with Daniel’s character, he is a song-writer, after all. However, it also added to a sense that this is an incomplete novel: I definitely finished Autumn with the feeling that I won’t properly understand every nuance until all four novels in the quartet are put together. And I think that Smith will have something really special on her hands then.

Overall, this was a fairly quick, enjoyable read that had a lot to say about everyday life and how we navigate changes. Although it is a book that I would recommend, there is definitely a part of me that wants to reserve passing judgement on it until all four books in the quartet are published. This is a good standalone novel, but I can’t help feeling that it will soon be one part of something great. Time will tell whether that will be the case, but I for one am certainly looking forward to seeing where Smith will take the quartet from here.

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