Autumn is the first in Ali Smith’s planned seasonal quartet and has been on my to-read list for such a long time, that Winter has already been released. Finding myself one evening with time to kill and nothing to read, I finally picked up this brilliant book. And what a treat Autumn is. It is glorious. I tore through it, hungry and enraptured.
The first review I read of this book on its release, wherever it was, claimed that this is the first great post-Brexit novel for Britain. The shock had receded a little, the true ramifications of the result had begun to be digested. And all the responses – horror, anger, betrayal, jubilation – can be expressed. This is not what Autumn is about, however, but the context. Britain has just come through that summer and is pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation event; Daniel is a century old; Elizabeth is 32 and is looking to the future.
Chapter by chapter, these people and their times are revealed to us. It is woven into a beautiful portrait of love, in so many of its forms: the simplicity and suffering of human relationships. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. And the seasons roll round, as ever.
If this sounds vague and unappealing, I apologise, but it is hard to articulate just what this story communicates. It is a very specific story of a few characters, but even surrounded as they are now by division and fear, their experiences resonate across the decades. It is difficult to describe the emotional power of how Smith reveals these characters and tells their stories. She is a wonderful writer, aware of the heft of her slow-reveal storylines, coupled with her playful language.
What I loved most about Autumn, I think, is the balance within it. Between old and young, past and present, rage and comfort, spirited and elegant. The realities can be as transient as the dreams. There is a magical dreaminess to it sometimes, such oddities that feel freeing: to know that another’s imagination also goes there. But it is so firmly rooted in the reality of our experience of love. This isn’t Love Actually love, not romance movie love. It is the love between a daughter and a mother, within a woman for herself, between a young girl and a grandfather-figure: messy and complicated and undefinable and sometimes not ok but utterly important and defining. It is real.
Autumn is also beautiful to read. The pacing was expert, and there were times, my God, when it almost moved me to tears, sitting there reading in the hairdressers’. I love that Smith started with the season of Autumn, and that it is not a cheesy tie in – the feeling of the season simply thematically fits with the characters’ experiences.
This is a glorious, great novel. Smith is an expert writer – pacing, language, theme, the revealing of story. I loved every moment with this book, and cannot wait to read Winter.