Verdict: Clever, poignant, probably brilliant but too disjointed for me.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Date read: November 27th, 2017
Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2016
A breathtakingly inventive new novel from the Man Booker-shortlisted and Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both
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.
My thoughts are all over the place for this book – maybe fitting because this is what this book is as well: all over the place. There is undeniable brilliance here: sentences so profound they made me stop in my tracks, word plays so wonderful I had to read them twice, musing on a great number of important things. It comes as no surprise that Ali Smith is a genius. But for some reasons these sparks of brilliance never came together for a coherent whole for me – and I guess this was also the point. There is no proper coherence in life and in art and Ali Smith captures this perfectly.
At the core of this book is the friendship between Elisabeth and her older neighbour Daniel and the profound effect on her life he has – opening to her a world of art and cleverness. This book is also filled with musings on art – especially that by women – and how art is both important and prone to being forgotten.
This relationship somehow did not work for me – I think I would have needed it to be more fleshed out. The wonderful glitzy stylistic framework was not enough for me. Somehow I was lacking an emotional core for this book to really resonate with me. This lack was reinforced by the secondary storyline of Pauline Boty. This could have been so interesting but ultimately fell flat for me. Mostly because I did not have the necessary knowledge to contextualize what Ali Smith was telling me. This feeling of lack of knowledge worked against me multiple times during this book.
I think, ultimately, I might have read the book wrong: I think it would have worked better for me if I had read this in one sitting, allowing myself to be swept up in the stylistic whimsy. This way the book would not have felt disjointed but rather a perfect microscopic view of one single moment in time. This moment being the aftermath of Brexit – which is something that is very close to my heart. I have lived in the UK for 5 years, 4 of those in Scotland and as such I have so many feelings about the UK leaving the EU. Especially because the months leading up to the Referendum were filled with xenophobic and racist discourse and because many people voting for leaving the UK voted for exactly those reasons. I am disappointed in the country I felt so welcome in, a country that is so wonderful and has so much to offer, and I am disappointed that people my age just did not go and vote (how idiotic is that?) and I am sorry for my friends who are still there, both those from the UK and those from abroad. Because this Referendum will change the country and there is no stopping this. (That was a tangent.)
First sentence: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”