Uplifting, enlightening, funny, clever, depressing, sad and heartwarming. The mischievous Autumn by Ali Smith is an ingenious novel, the first of the ‘Seasonal Quartet’ telling the story of the UK fragmented after the post-Brexit vote in 2016, when ugliness and prejudice rose to the surface setting brother against sister, friend against friend, dividing streets, neighbourhoods and towns, a binary split with each side convinced it is right and the other, wrong.
Daniel Gluck is 101 years old and in a nursing home, we see from his wonderful lyrical dreams that he teeters on the edge of death. Smith builds her world around Mr Gluck and Elisabeth Demand who, with her mother Wendy, lived next door to Daniel when Elisabeth was a child. Their relationship starts in 1993. Elisabeth, aged eight, must interview a neighbour for a homework project. Her mother is not keen and tries to bribe her to invent a neighbour instead. The following day Elisabeth meets Mr Gluck and, despite her mother’s misgivings (single man, dodgy, must be gay, might be unsafe etc) they become firm friends. Now he is 101 and she tells a lie to the nursing home – yes, she is his grand-daughter – in order to gain a visitor’s pass. She sits by his bed and reads Brave New World.
Smith compares and contrasts modern life with past times in the twentieth-century, we see modern life through Elisabeth’s storyline countered by Daniel’s memories and dreams, and his interpretations of books, art and song for the child Elisabeth. The story wings its way through contemporary references from television antiques programmes and passport applications to celebrity Christine Keeler, sculptor Barbara Hepworth and pop artist Pauline Boty.
This is all very interesting but, with the lightest of hands, Smith gives a warning about the danger of nationalism, populism and the easy appeal of accepting political lies rather than asking difficult questions of the politicians and ourselves. One passage in particular underlines it all: Daniel’s younger sister Hannah is captured in Nice, France, in 1943 despite carrying papers which identify her as Adrienne Albert.
Running throughout are the themes of truth v lies [juxtaposed often, with lies often being throwaway and easy whilst truth can be awkward and difficult to say] and identity. There is a hilarious passage where Elisabeth tries to renew her passport application at the Post Office, an all-too-believable portrayal of officialdom. Some of the historical sections, particularly about Keeler and Boty, seemed rushed and I would have liked more of Daniel’s songwriting background which was mentioned fleetingly.
Short, at 272 pages, Autumn can be read in one sitting. It is a joy to read. Next in the quartet comes Winter.
Autumn was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize.
Read my review of How to be Both also by Ali Smith.
‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith, #1 Seasonal Quartet [UK: Penguin] Buy now
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