Ali Smith’s 2016 Autumn is the first in a four-part series and despite being set in the disillusioned aftermath of Brexit, the novel is lyrical and dreamy – contemplating the haunting brevity of human life. The novel centres on the unconventional friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel Gluck who meet in 1993. Before long, the precocious eight-year-old Elisabeth is pulled into a world of storytelling and pop art by her whimsical, retiree neighbour.
In the present, the fragile Daniel Gluck is now over a hundred years old; confined to a bed in an assisted care facility, he spends his time in an “increased sleep period” that “happens when people are close to death”. As he drifts in and out of consciousness, Daniel’s ephemeral dreams bring to the surface his deepest desires, as he imagines his broken body becoming beautifully metamorphosed into a coat of green leaves.
After this surrealist blending of old and new, of the resplendent and fantastical promise of change, Smith drops us back into the dreary present which is meticulously ruled by linearity and fixed categories. We are now introduced to the grown up Elisabeth – a junior lecturer in the history of art – as she battles the bureaucratic forces at work in the Post Office, who reject her “Check and Send” application for a new passport based on the fact that her head is the wrong size.
Setting her novel just after Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Smith shows a dreary and split nation where “All across the country there was misery and rejoicing”. This surly atmosphere is exasperated by a house vandalised with “GO HOME” which Elisabeth sees in her mother’s village, and when the two go on a walk together they are confronted with a monstrous barbed wire fence, seemingly sprung out of nowhere to mark the land’s border.
However, Smith’s novel never lapses into hopelessness. Set against this uneasy backdrop, we also enter a world of animated and intelligent conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel as they discuss art, literature, and life. Another glimpse of hope in the novel is its focus on Pauline Boty: the subject of Elisabeth’s dissertation and a now largely forgotten female British Pop Artist. Her paintings burst forth with vibrant and unapologetic vitality, laughing in the face of the norm with splashes of colour and scenes of female pleasure.
Throughout Autumn we never cease to celebrate the characters’ small rebellions and victories against life. Whether this be Elisabeth’s mother’s lesbian awakening after years of loneliness, or the captivating moment when Daniel throws his watch into the river. Smith’s writing is defiantly non-linear and its flitting between past and present shows just how subjective the experience of time is. The novel continually takes solace in the power of words and storytelling to give delight and its imaginative retreats into dream-worlds provide us with fantastical images of regeneration.
Despite its brevity, Autumn can be a stubbornly difficult read. Smith’s abstract musings on the passing of time sometimes sink into a stream-of-consciousness obscurity. Moreover, her subtle interweaving of issues like art, feminism, ageing, and the perseverant struggle for intimacy in an age of numb modernity comes at the expense of plot progression.
Yet Smith always re-captivates us with her delicate and moving prose, which verges on poetry, such as when she describes a room of abandoned antiques as the “symphony of worth and worthlessness.” Just like these discarded remnants of lives past which have slipped into irrelevancy, the characters of the novel are in no way spectacular or singularly special. We have the art lecturer whose job security is in doubt due to government cuts; the old man unconscious in his bed whose biggest success was a one-hit wonder musical composition.
Nonetheless, through the improbable friendship between these two characters we are shown how fleeting human life is sacred in all its irrelevancy. Poignant, empathetic, and difficult – Ali Smith’s Autumn is a call to human connection, responding to the sullen post-Brexit despondency she sees all around her.