books, Reading, Women Writers

“Autumn” by Ali Smith

          “We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.
          But a coldness was shifting all through her body, wiping her into a clarity much like a soapy window by a window cleaner from top to base with a rubber blade.
         He nodded, more to the room than to Elisabeth.
        It’s the only responsibility memory has, he said. But, of course, memory and responsibility are strangers. They’re foreign to each other. Memory always goes its own way quite regardless.”

Ali Smith is, in my somewhat limited experience, a profound and boundary-shattering 31938172writer. Her books experiment with form, voice, time. They are ethereal, graceful. They tend to take a chapter or two to find your footing and then they flow effortlessly. “Autumn”, shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, rises to the high expectations I have for all of Smith’s works.

This, the first in what is promised to be a quartet of novels, combs through the decades-long friendship between Elisabeth, a woman raised in chaos by her ‘free-spirited’ mother, and Daniel, a mysterious and sage older man. “Autumn” begins with Elisabeth, now 32, visiting the bed-ridden Daniel, now 101, in a nursing home.

“Daniel is now in an increased sleep period. Whichever care assistant chances to be on duty always makes a point of explaining, when Elisabeth sits with him, that the increased sleep period happens when people are close to death.”

Elisabeth visits Daniel every week, reading quietly by his bedside and losing herself in reflections from their shared past. Through these day dreams, we understand a bit more about the formative impact Daniel has had on Elisabeth. Beginning when Elisabeth is a girl of eight and Daniel is the venerable man next door, Elisabeth and Daniel have had a deep connection, a love that defies logic and age. Theirs is a love that is chaste, distinctly non-sexual; it is partly parental, partly soul-mate, once-in-a-lifetime love.

“Autumn” is a deep exploration of love and friendship. It is also, in direct opposition, perhaps, to its ethereal nature, an indictment of the current geo-political climate in the UK and worldwide. Some of my favorite passages were overtly political and keenly reflective of the frustration and despair felt by so many.

          “I’m tired of the news[, her mother says]. 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. I’m tired of the violence there is and 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 any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.
         I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.
        I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.”

Even more mouth-wateringly delicious:

          “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. 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. All across the country, people called each other cunts. All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country, people felt like they counted for nothing. All across the country, people had pinned their hopes on it. All across the country, people waved flags in the rain. All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti. All across the country, people threatened other people. All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane. All across the country, politicians lied. All across the country, politicians fell apart. All across the country, politicians vanished. All across the country, promises vanished. All across the country, money vanished. All across the country, social media did the job. All across the country, things got nasty. All across the country, nobody spoke about it. All across the country, nobody spoke about anything else. All across the country, racist bile was general. All across the country, people said it wasn’t that they didn’t like immigrants. All across the country, people said it was about control. All across the country, everything changed overnight. All across the country, the haves and the have nots stayed the same. All across the country, the usual tiny per cent of the people made their money out of the usual huge per cent of the people. All across the country, money money money money. All across the country, no money no money no money no money.
          All across the country, the country split in pieces. All across the country, the countries cut adrift.
          All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there…”

Ali Smith is enchanting, fiercely talented, and fearlessly original. “Autumn” is soulful, wistful, beautiful. It rightfully finds itself atop the Man Booker Prize list and foretells of three more breathtaking reads as Smith rolls out her seasonal quartet.

 

 

10 thoughts on ““Autumn” by Ali Smith”

  1. I’m still having to wait to read this because it is on one of my book group lists for December and I haven’t got time for re-reads. But every time I read reviews like this I curse the person who chose it for so late in the year!

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  2. I actually read the first few pages of How To Be Both by Ali Smith a long time ago, but since I couldn’t get into it, I put it down. The passages in your post seem beautiful, and I have been intrigued by this book, so I might give this one a try. Also, the fact that it is shortlisted for the Man Booker makes it even more appealing to me 🙂

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