Autumn by Ali Smith


This Jennifer-recommended book was a Booker Prize finalist for this year. I recall reading somewhere that this was the first post-Brexit novel and while it speaks to trying to come to terms with that world, there's more.

First we hear Daniel's voice as he finds himself washed up onto a beach and concludes he must be dead. "Thank you for having me, death. Please excuse me, must get back to it, life," he thinks. He sews himself a coat of leaves, ruminates about his life, making vague references, then observes bodies along the shore, then further along, he sees people reading, dozing, enjoying the beach.

Elisabeth comes into view in a Kafka-like encounter with the soulless-state as she tries to have her passport renewed. Elisabeth, a part-time university lecturer, has known Daniel since childhood when he lived next door and became her friend while her mother was busy elsewhere. In recent months when she visits him in the care facility, he is sleeping. The life-long love that Elisabeth had for this man was based on his respect for her as a thinking person even as a child and on his steadfast presence.  

Looking at the passages I marked, I find some about what passes for "the news." Here's one that refers to the killing of Jo Cox, a young MP who supported remaining in the EU:

Someone killed an MP, she tells Daniel's back as she struggles to keep up. A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn't be enough. But it's old news now. Once it would have been a year's worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.

Later Elisabeth 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 how we're encouraging it.

While one might think the new approach to public discourse is the central theme of the book (and God knows it is a good candidate), the loving connection between Elisabeth and Daniel, despite their 69-year age difference, is the important theme. Daniel's life before Elisabeth and her mother moved into the neighborhood remains pretty mysterious, though he is considered "arty," and there are indications that he made money writing music and jingles for advertisements.

When she was in college in 2002 Elisabeth discovered a catalog from an exhibit of Pauline Boty, a British Pop Art painter in the early 1960s. Elisabeth is drawn to her and we learn that while she was one of the founders of British Pop Art, her works disappeared after she died very young. In 1995 her works were rediscovered and there have been several retrospective exhibits. The Wikipedia entry about Pauline Boty was enlightening; I hadn't heard of her and had initially wondered if she was fictional. Many 1960s references that touched on Boty were long-forgotten for me, such as Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair. Apparently Boty had an uncredited role in the 1966 film "Alfie" with Michael Caine. The fictional role of Pauline Boty is a connection to Daniel who loved her.

If what I've written makes this seem like a standard-issue narrative, then I need to rectify that. While many passages were uncomfortably mystifying, I was readily drawn along and never considered abandoning the book.

 Ali Smith, Autumn, Parthenon Books, 2016, 260 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon. 



  • One of the things I like about modern fiction is that we discover all kinds of people and events from our reading. I had never heard of Pauline Boty either, and I had a lovely time looking at Google images of her art. I wonder if authors today feel a kind of freedom that they can reference anything they want without having to worry if people recognise it, because Google and Wikipedia are there to help us any time we need it.
    This is quite different to the commentary I’ve heard in the past about authors needing to be wary with their allusions because in a diverse world, an author can’t assume that there is anything that everyone will recognise.

  • It’s great to have such easy access to information that enhances reading in unknown subjects. I recall looking up the word “larrikin.”
    It hadn’t occurred to me that this changes what authors can do, but yes, I’m sure you’re right.


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