I’ve been meaning to read Ali Smith for ages. I have her previous novel, How To Be Both, but was put off by the historic section and never picked it up. I then tried reading some of her short stories, and discovered that I very much enjoyed them – which is why I decided to finally take a foray into her full length work.
This is the first book in a seasonal quartet. The next, Winter, will be released later this year (in winter, obviously). One of the things that drove me to pick it up was that it was touted as being the first post-Brexit novel, and very much of its time. This interested me, but also made me feel more of a sense of urgency to pick it up while it was still current.
This book was unlike anything I’ve read before. Smith’s writing style is more poetic and experimental than I’m used to in a novel. She also jumped between characters and times, sometimes seemingly at random. And while they do all connect and overlap because they all tie into the main character, Elizabeth, and her neighbour and friend, Daniel, they often felt more like interlocking vignettes than one cohesive story. Now that I’ve finished reading it, I can step back and see the book as a whole – and yet when I think about any of the specific stories or characters, they seem very much like separate pieces. I did wonder if this could be because she is also a short story writer (I know she has written several full length novels, but having not read any, I don’t know if this is her signature style or just something she was trying out for this book).
I don’t feel like the plot of the book is really the thing that needs to be discussed in reviewing it. The writing style and themes are really the stars of the show. But at its heart, this book speaks about love – the different forms it can take, the ways in which it can echo through someone’s life even if the person they love never knows it. It’s also about love in spite of – in spite of betrayal, in spite of dislike, in spite of the passage of time, in spite of being unrequited. And it’s a story about how we move through our lives, and how we grow and change as we age – sometimes in ways that surprise even ourselves.
This book does mention Brexit, but I feel as if it was more of a background that creates a subtle, creeping sense of menace and discomfort echoed in other elements of the story (most notably the physical fence that has been erected across a pathway in the countryside, which no one seems to know the purpose of, or even which side it’s trying to keep people from). I think if I knew more about British politics I probably would have seen more in the book’s subtleties, but as it stands I was still able to enjoy the story with very limited political knowledge.
The one negative I found in this book was that I had a really hard time with the main character, Elizabeth. In the present day parts of the book she’s in her 30s. She’s not a particularly likable character. She’s a bit judgmental, haughty and unforgiving. She tends towards selfishness and seems not to really care much about anyone in her life other than Daniel – a man 69 years her senior who she met when he moved in next door to her when she was a child. The two developed a beautiful friendship, the main aspect of which seemed to be him providing her with intellectual stimulation that was missing in the rest of her life, and attention she didn’t get from her single mother. He gently nudges her towards a more open-minded view of the world, and seems to be the most positive role model in her life. I loved Daniel, and I enjoyed the relationship between him and Elizabeth much more than I enjoyed Elizabeth in her own right.
Though this book wasn’t difficult to read (it’s not long, has a large font and many blank pages), it did make me feel a bit like I wasn’t getting it. There were so many layers to this book that I wasn’t quite smart enough to understand, and I feel like more educated, intelligent or literary readers would find much more to analyze. I can see why it has been so widely discussed, and why it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize this year. It is unique in my reading experience, beautiful in its writing and imagery, and it has stuck with me well past turning the last page. I don’t think I’m the reviewer to do this book justice – as I said, I am absolutely certain I have missed a lot. But I will say that I feel like most readers could get through and enjoy this book. It’s one that, like well-done children’s books written with subtleties only adult readers pick up on, has many layers and allows the reader to read at their own level.
I’d say this is one to pick up if you’re looking for a way in to this year’s Man Booker nominees but are intimidated by the longer or more complex books, if you’re a fan of poetry, if you love Ali Smith or if you just want to see what the fuss is about. Don’t worry if you’re not up on politics or a literary genius – I think there’s something here for everyone, and it’s really a quick read. It’s one I think I’ll probably circle back to when I’m older and smarter, and that I’m definitely glad I read.
Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy and the colour-hit of Pop Art (via a bit of very contemporary skulduggery and skull-diggery), Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.
Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.
From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves. – Goodreads
Book Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Series: Yes – Seasonal #1
Published By: Hamish Hamilton
Released: October 20, 2016
Date Read: July 23-30, 2017