Book Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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I just finished reading Autumn by the Scottish author Ali Smith. I was struggling for the precise words to describe the essence of this imaginative, unconventional novel, the first in a series on time and the way we experience it. I found this blurb from the London Guardian by Joanna Kavenna, which I could not improve upon:

Autumn is a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams, and transient realities; the endless sad fragility of mortal lives.

The story is built around the relationship between Daniel Gluck, who is now a very old man, and Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-two year old woman–“a no-fixed-hours-casual-contract junior lecturer at a university in London.” Daniel is 101 years old and dying in an elder care facility outside of London. As he sleeps and dreams, he sometimes imagines himself dead, and sometimes remembers his past–his sister, the woman he loved, and his history with Elisabeth. As dreams go, the memories that come to Daniel are fragmented, random, and free-floating in time, often making it difficult for the reader to discern their chronology. But that’s just the point, isn’t it? Memories don’t come to us in chronological order and time does not proceed for us in a linear fashion, but shifts from present to past to future like light dancing off the water or sand shifting on the shore.

Elisabeth visits Daniel to sit with him and read to him. She’s convinced he knows she’s there and can hear her, even though the care assistant on duty says he may be in a coma and always reminds her every time she comes that he is in an increased sleep period which happens when people are close to death. He doesn’t speak but Elisabeth imagines what he would be saying, as she sits with him there in his last days.

Daniel lies there very still in the bed, and the cave of his mouth, its unsaying of these things, is the threshold to the end of the world as she knows it.

Through Daniel’s dreams and Elisabeth’s memory flashbacks, we come to understand the origin of their relationship and a great deal more about Daniel’s complex and varied life as an art lover and song writer.

Elisabeth is eight when she and her mother move in next to Daniel. Elisabeth’s school assignment is to interview a neighbor about what it means to be a neighbor, and to create a portrait in words from the questions asked in the interview. A single parent pre-occupied with her own life, Elisabeth’s mother sees no point in the assignment and persuades her daughter to make up the interview and, if it sounds real enough to convince her teacher, she’ll buy her a video and replace the broken video player. When her mother reads Elisabeth’s portrait, she is moved enough by its charm to share it with Daniel.

Daniel is sitting on the garden wall next to her front gate when Elisabeth comes home from school the next day.

“Very pleased to meet you,” he says. “Finally.” Elisabeth wants to know why he says finally when she only moved in six weeks ago.

The lifelong friends, he says. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

Their friendship continues, as Daniel, delighted by Elisabeth’s precociousness and insight, piques his young friend’s interest in art by sharing stories about his love for the forgotten pop artist Pauline Boty. Pauline had been twenty years his junior and had married Clive, despite Daniel’s efforts to win her over. She had died of cancer at age twenty-nine.

Daniel had been taken with the rich colors and creative design of Boty’s collages, and first introduced Elisabeth to them by describing the details from memory. He tells Elisabeth she doesn’t need to go to college but to collage to learn about all sorts of disciplines and their relationships to one another. Later, when Elizabeth is attending university and is writing her dissertation on Boty, she finds an exhibition catalogue that includes Boty’s work and takes the book to Daniel. Daniel reveals to Elisabeth the nature of the love he had for Boty.

It’s possible to be in love not with someone but with their eyes. I mean, with how eyes that aren’t yours let you see where you are, who you are.

The description may also have been apropos to Daniel’s feelings for Elisabeth as well as hers for him.

Daniel teaches Elisabeth about stories and about love and friendship.

Whoever makes up the story makes up the world. So always try to welcome people into the home of your stories. That’s my suggestion.

We have to hope people who know us and love us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, nothing else matters.

He always asks her what she is reading, and we later learn that’s what his sister always asked him–the sister who is taken in France by the Nazi’s when Daniel remains in England with his father. When Elisabeth’s mother comments that she thinks Daniel may have been a ballerina because of his youthful appearance and ability to sit holding his feet, Elisabeth encourages Daniel, as a joke, to lie to her and tell her she is right. It would be their secret; no one else would have to know. Daniel gives Elisabeth the choice, but warns her that if he lies to her mother, Elisabeth will stop trusting him.

Though their relationship is purely platonic, it causes jealousy between Elizabeth and a lover, when Elizabeth repeats Daniel’s name aloud in her sleep. The relationship even raises her mother’s suspicion about Daniel’s motives, enough to forbid her daughter to see him again. Elizabeth defies her mother’s wishes and continues to see Daniel over the years. Now that he is dying, she wants to sit with him and be there for him.

Although the characters’ memories swirl around in time, the story itself begins just  after the Brexit vote in 2016, in which the UK decided to leave the European Union. The author reflects the sense of uncertainty brought about by the results of the referendum.

All across the country there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live, electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roof, the traffic.

Elisabeth’s mother, who is perplexed over the polarization the referendum has caused in their small community says,

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 people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimity.

I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words.

As the story unfolds,Elisabeth’s appreciation for her mother grows from annoyance at her mother’s lack of understanding and intelligence, to one of affection and approval of how her mother begins to take risks and embrace the life she has been reluctant to pursue.

The author weaves a thread of humor into the scenes where Elisabeth confronts the absurdities of bureaucracy, as she visits the post office to do Check and Send with her passport, a service which is supposed to expedite the renewal process. The wait is so long, she’s almost read the of copy Brave New World, which she brought with her. When she finally reaches the counter, the clerk questions the spelling of her name–Elisabeth with an “s” and not a “z”–and then tells her that her face is the wrong size on the photo and refuses to process the form until she goes to the Snappy Snaps photo place to get a correct one made. He stamps the form HEAD INCORRECT SIZE before posting a sign in the divide indicating that the window is now closed to further customers.

Later, Elisabeth falsely tells the receptionist at the elder care facility that she is Daniel’s granddaughter. She gives her own mobile number, as well as her mother’s address and number. When the receptionist asks for further proof of identity, Elisabeth hands her the passport.

“I’m afraid this passport has expired,” she says.

When Elisabeth tells her that it’s only been a month and she is going to renew it, the receptionist lectures her on what is and is not permitted.

Autumn speaks to the universal theme of time cycling through the seasons of nature and of life. Through the images and  glimpses of the characters’ pasts, interwoven with scenes from their present lives, the author explores the nature of friendship, love, and loss, and the universal power of art to bring meaning and connection between the old and the young. The book is timely in its observations of post-Brexit England; it is timeless in its assertion that the current era is no different from past eras. As Daniel says

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s their nature.

However, he remembers his sister’s words from long ago,

Hope is …a matter of how we deal with the negative acts toward human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all humans. That no thing human is alien to us. The foul and the fair, and that most important of all we’re here for the mere blink of the eyes, that’s all.

Autumn is a thoughtful and engaging stand alone novel, as well as a compelling beginning to Ali Smith’s Season quartet on time and the way we experience it. Anyone who reads this first book will be anxious to discover what comes next.

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