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mde

So many people seem to love Ali Smith’s work, I have over the years seem numerous glowing reviews of her novels. I had often thought that perhaps I had missed something with Ali Smith – and should probably put that right – the moment never seemed to arrive, and then my very small book group picked Autumn as our November read. We meet to discuss it tomorrow evening – and I am sure we will have an interesting discussion. I tried to read The Accidental, some years ago, I didn’t get along with the style at all, although that isn’t usually enough to make me set a book aside – I didn’t finish The Accidental, although I can’t remember if there was anything else that made me not like it. I was a bit nervous therefore approaching this novel, for years I have had the idea that Ali Smith wasn’t for me. The good news is that I liked Autumn very much, parts of it I almost loved, but I certainly liked it enough I think, to try others of her books in the future.

There are some beautiful passages, sections I enjoyed reading over again, even parts that made me laugh. This section, I found particularly beautiful.

“November again. It’s more winter than autumn. That’s not mist. It’s fog. The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like – no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass. There’ve been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring. The furniture in the garden is rusting. They’ve forgotten to put it away for the winter. The trees are revealing their structures. There’s the catch of fire in the air. All the souls are out marauding. But there are roses, there are still roses. In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still. Look at the colour of it.”

Autumn is the first book in a projected seasonal sequence of novels, Winter has been published, already creating quite a buzz.

In Autumn we have the story of a unique friendship, set against the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Elisabeth Demand is a thirty-two-year-old art historian, dismayed by what she sees happening around her in the wake of that vote, she turns to her friendship with Daniel Gluck and the memory of all he taught her growing up to try and make sense of it. Daniel is a hundred and one, lying in a coma like sleep, the staff at the care home don’t think he’ll last long now. His mind is still alive, and in between parts of the non-linear narrative, are some of Daniel’s dreams, confusing though they can be, he dreams of being young again.

There is a beautiful rhythm to parts of Smith’s narrative – which I really liked, I particularly liked three pages ruminating on the Brexit vote, which almost amount to a poem.

“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. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish Passport Applications.”

As a child, Elisabeth and her single mother had lived next door to Daniel. When Elisabeth was asked by her teacher to write something about her neighbour, she chose to write about Daniel. After a bit of a false start and despite her mother’s unhelpful advice to just make it up, bit by bit a friendship was born. Elisabeth’s mother became quite happy to use Daniel for babysitting when it suited her, yet she was also rather quick to make assumptions about a man she barely knew then. Elisabeth’s mother is frequently absent – she appears uncaring, though there is also an anger in her that many might recognise.

“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 anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

For several years, until Elisabeth is a teenager – she and Daniel take walks together – an elderly man, and a little girl, but the two have made a connection – and that is how a friendship starts. Daniel talks to her about art – he brings it alive for her with his description of colour, and collage – and starts Elisabeth off on a journey that will take her to study the work of British pop artist Pauline Boty. As the narrative moves back and forth in time, we get glimpses of Daniel and Elisabeth’s pasts – little pieces of a collage, like those Daniel so beautifully described to Elisabeth – and we see how important this old man was to a child whose only parent was so often not quite there. Now, Elisabeth sits at his bedside reading aloud to him, confident he can hear her.

During his long, long life Daniel has experienced many things, his sister for example – a young woman defying the Nazis. While in the 1960s- he along with the rest of the country watched the political fallout of the Christine Keeler affair. We are reminded how different the political world is now – I have to wonder – along with others I’m sure – what do people have to do now to be finished politically?

Autumn is definitely a novel that accurately depicts the UK as it is now – there are some hilarious Post Office scenes, when Elisabeth goes to try and renew her passport. Alongside which, the more sombre depiction of a nation in flux.

Very glad to have finally joined the Ali Smith party.

Ali Smith

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