Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ was released four months after the results of the EU referendum and has the rather strange honour of being the first book to be published on the topic of Brexit.
I’m going to put it out there, Smith is the marmite of the literary world.
Her writing style is like a stream of consciousness, with no beginning, middle or end. She plays with time constructs, bending how a story is expected to play out. She blurs the lines between dreaming, reminiscing and real time. The chronology skips forward and backward and sideways, moving slowly and then quickly. Her writing is carefree and nonlinear, and the reader is taken along for a ride they might not have signed up for.
BUT if you are able to strap yourself in and hold on tight, you are in for a beautiful journey of inventive and poetic story-telling. Smith has a knack for touching on topics so lightly and effortlessly. She expertly threads them into the narrative where they almost go unnoticed, until you’ve finished the book and are left wondering what the hell you’ve just read.
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 roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.
Yes it’s about Brexit. But it’s also about the Profumo Scandal of ’63. But sometimes it’s about Pauline Boty, the only female painter of the British pop art movement, whose legacy was snuffed out by her male counterparts. But hey, it’s also about politicians lying and the critical impact this has on society – which we are seeing play out in present day Britain, where a rift of hate and despair still divides the country four years later.
But it’s mostly about Elisabeth and Daniel.
Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.
Elisabeth is on a casual work contract, struggling to pay the rent for the flat she was able to afford as a student a decade ago. She visits her old neighbour Daniel, an old man slowly dying in a hospice, and reads to him while he dreams about his life, and about leaving his life.
Brexit is not an easy topic to write about, especially when it is playing out in real time. But in between the confusion, tension, and the underlying current of racism and despair, Smith still manages to leave us with a thread of hope. This book is a reminder that, in spite of everything, there is always hope.
Rating: 4 out of 5. When I had just finished it I would have given it a lower rating, but I just needed time to digest it as it’s like nothing I’ve read before. Autumn is the first in a four-part series based around the seasons. Winter and Spring are already out, with Summer to arrive July this year. Autumn was also shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.