Ali Smith’s Autumn is described by the New York Times as the “first great Brexit novel,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/17/books/review/autumn-ali-smith.html but Smith says it’s a book about “What time is, how we experience it.” It’s the first of what will be a quartet named after the seasons. The word Brexit does not appear, although referendum does, but there are plenty of passages that are clearly about Brexit. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/09/23/ali-smith-on-brexit/ Smith depicts well the chilly, uncertain, scared atmosphere that Brexit has created in Britain. I didn’t grasp until I read Smith’s quote afterwards that the book was about time, but it clearly is. At one point “time flies” when one of the main characters throws his watch into a canal.
There are really only four characters in the book, and they hurtle backwards and forwards in time. Elizabeth is a university lecturer about to lose her job, and Daniel is her much older neighbour whom she loves. She meets him when she’s a child, and years later reads to him as he is dying in a care home at age 101. His first question to her is always “What are you reading?” Elizabeth’s mother is wayward but towards the end of the book forms a long relationship with an actress she saw on children’s television when she was a child.
The book has both funny and poetic scenes, but it barely hangs together. You are not longing to know what happens next but you come to enjoy that it’s likely to be something strange.
Something I enjoyed about the book was learning about Pauline Boty, the only female pop art painter who died aged 26 of cancer in 1963. She was beautiful and an actress and dancer as well as a painter. She appeared briefly in Alfie, a film that symbolised the 60s, and in a Ken Russell documentary. I’d never heard of her, but Lin had. A “free spirit,” she is a quintessentially 60s character but also keeps being lost and rediscovered. You can see the connections with time.
A lost painting of Boty’s features Christine Keeler, who symbolises the time when Britain’s relation to sexuality changed. Both Boty and Keeler are sexually charged women, but Smith tells stories not of when Keeler was an adult but of when she was a child.
I read the book in three days, not always at a time when I could concentrate fully, and I’m almost tempted to just read it again immediately–but only almost.
I took only three quotes from the book apart from those in the Brexit blog:
Nothing comic isn’t serious.
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.
We have to forget. Or we’d never sleep ever again.