The first in her ambitious new seasonal series, Ali Smith’s new novel is an evocative text intent on bringing Romantic melancholy, and Keats, to the present day.
Set in the aftermath of Brexit, Autumn presents readers with a brave new world riddled with hatred, xenophobia and estrangement. Within these sweeping tides of political and cultural change sits one of novelist Ali Smith’s most intriguing families – art historian Elisabeth, her antique-loving mother, and their 101-year-old neighbour, Daniel Gluck. A combination which allows for an elegiac musing on transience and time.
Smith has long honed her ability to weave the surreal and banal together through her characters. In First Person and Other Stories, a demonic child at the supermarket terrorises his mother; in The Accidental, Amber, an ethereal and uninvited character, intrudes on a middle-class holiday in Norfolk. In Autumn, reality’s hard edges are softened by the dreams and dream-like character of Daniel.
Daniel is Smith’s vehicle for exploring decay in the most abstract sense. Readers are invited to live inside of his head – he sleeps through much of the book.
One might imagine it is unpleasant, being sealed inside a tree. One might imagine, ah, pining. But the scent lightens despair.
[…] Burn me. Burn the tree. Spread the ashes, for luck, where you want next year’s crops to grow.
These abstract sequences are coupled with Elisabeth’s own memories of Daniel, whom she loves: days spent on wild roams through meadows and forest, revisiting his vivid descriptions of collages by Christine Keeler, and insightful, sometimes melancholy musings on the state of the world.
While the character of Daniel allows for a reflection of the past in a more nostalgic and dislocated sense, history and the present are held finely in tandem in ‘real life’ too. From Elisabeth’s role as a history of art professor to her mothers obsession with antiques, Smith’s motifs of modern life are laden with references to the past. Britain today is shown to be smorgasbord of influences, from the way in which an antiques TV show The Golden Gavel shapes her mother’s romantic life, to the abstract work of a feminist pop artist that informs Elisabeth’s outlook. It’s a sentiment echoed structurally too, with a Wolfsian and modernist lilt: sometimes a chapter chronicles a month on two pages; in others, one small moment spans many more.
Smith’s prose has an opalescent quality, holding disparate strands in motion and harking back to the same overarching theme. Time is here, time was there… In this, and other ways, her new novel feels like a Waste Land palimpsest. Daniel standing between a shore ‘at the dark line of the tide-dumped dead’ in the opening scene, holiday makers ‘under parasols’, these echo T.S. Eliot’s very own: ‘Your shadow at morning striding behind you. Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’ A similarity almost hammered home with a final reference to a ‘handful of sand.’
But if this all sounds abstract, don’t despair. The fluctuation of time is harnessed with vivid and concrete happenings, most enjoyably the moment when Elisabeth’s mother attacks an anti-immigration fence on the coast, after hearing news on the radio (one suspects Radio 4) that the government is cutting funding for houses for asylum seekers.
What begins in clichés – quite literally – evolves into fresh and engaging novel about the nature of our times. And while Smith offers no solution, she leaves readers with a symbol of hope, offering a moment of pause and perspective which, if not a remedy to the bleak future facing Britain, is something.
by Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton (UK) | Pantheon (US)
272pp. | £16.99 | $24.95