According to recent interviews about her new book, Ali Smith had been considering for quite some time the possibility of writing a cycle of novels, each focusing on the seasons of the year. Now, with AUTUMN, she has embarked on this project, with a story that is simultaneously classic and relevant, incorporating historical ideas and characters while also dealing, in a stunningly timely fashion, with current events, particularly the Brexit vote, which had taken place only a few months before the book’s publication in Smith’s native Great Britain.
The primary relationship at the center of AUTUMN is one that, in several ways, crosses decades. Raised by a single mother who often left her daughter alone while she went on dates, Elisabeth strikes up a friendship as a preteen with her octogenarian neighbor, Daniel. Despite her mother’s initial misgivings about the potential friendship, Daniel soon becomes Elisabeth’s de facto babysitter, encouraging her love of art and story, pushing her to be creative while offering up very little of his own personal history in exchange. Years later, as Daniel lies dying in a nursing home, Elisabeth, now in her early 30s, reads to him from Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD and other classics, convinced (or so she says) that her old friend can still hear her.
"By placing the current political climate within the context of artistic and intellectual history, by reminding us --- through the mechanism of story --- that storytelling and art can help us make sense of circumstances, AUTUMN offers both perspective and consolation in what are, for many, troubling times."
These modern-day scenes take place in the wake of the recent Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union. Just as Elisabeth ponders the changes that are likely to transpire in her personal life (the impending loss of her old friend, the likelihood that her contract job teaching art history will be eliminated under the new economic climate), one can’t help but reflect on the sense of loss, of the ending of something, that pervades not only the season of autumn but also this moment in history.
Like Smith’s previous book, HOW TO BE BOTH, AUTUMN is suffused with art --- this time in the person of lesser-known pop artist (and the only female British pop artist) Pauline Boty, whose life has connections with both Elisabeth’s and Daniel’s. Some elements of the novel --- such as the “Profumo Affair,” a British political scandal from 1963 with connections to Boty’s work --- may be less than well known to American readers. But others, especially the emotional tenor of the present-day material, will feel very familiar indeed.
Says Elisabeth’s exhausted mother in the wake of the Brexit vote:“I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of the anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of the selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence there is and I'm tired of the violence that's on its way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to any more. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful.”
By placing the current political climate within the context of artistic and intellectual history, by reminding us --- through the mechanism of story --- that storytelling and art can help us make sense of circumstances, AUTUMN offers both perspective and consolation in what are, for many, troubling times. Readers will be eager to see where Smith will travel next on her journey through the four seasons.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 10, 2017
- Publication Date: February 7, 2017
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon
- ISBN-10: 1101870737
- ISBN-13: 9781101870730