Autumn, by Ali Smith

>> Sunday, September 24, 2017

TITLE: Autumn
AUTHOR: Ali Smith

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 264
PUBLISHER: Hamish Hamilton

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Starts a quartet

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Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.

Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever....
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After a couple of very busy weeks (lots of travel, and then visitors), I'm back to my Man Booker reviews. Unfortunately, I'm starting with one which I didn't expect to like, and turned out to fulfil those expectations.

I've tried to read Ali Smith before (most recently her previous Booker-nominated book, How To Be Both), and decided I simply do not get what she does. But there have been so, so many really positive reviews of Autumn, including by people who are not big fans of her, not to mention the Brexit element, which is something that I expected to resonate with me. So, almost against my will, I started to think maybe I would like this one.

Well, my experience with Autumn was almost exactly the same as my experience with How To Be Both: bafflement. I have no idea what to make of this book. I didn't hate it; I just didn't get it.

There's our protagonist, Elisabeth, and her grief at the decline and likely upcoming death of her friend, Daniel Gluck. Daniel was Elisabeth's neighbour when she was growing up, an old man already, and yet the only person in Elisabeth's life to make time for her and pay her attention. Now he's 101 and in a nursing home, floating in and out of consciousness, and Elisabeth spends her time at his bedside.

Interspersed with this, we get a lot about a little-known pop artist, Pauline Boty, who is the focus of Elisabeth's work in Art History. We find out some really interesting stuff about the artist and about her work alike. I did enjoy that, but didn't quite get why it was part of the book. Daniel was the one to introduce Elisabeth to Boty's work, but beyond that, I couldn't really see what the two threads had to do with each other.

And then there's Brexit. The present-day sections of the novel take place right after the referendum, in the summer of 2016, and there's a lot about how the country is feeling divided and half are feeling alienated, while the other half are feeling jubilant. A house gets spray-painted with "Go Home", a mysterious fence pops up in the outskirts of the village and aggressive men threaten people who go anywhere it, and the renewal of Elizabeth's passport turns into a vaguely threatening bureaucratic nightmare.

This element will probably be effective for most readers, but didn't move me in the way that I'd expected it to. Elisabeth's feelings didn't really resonate with me, which was most surprising. I've witnessed first-hand the devastation of some of my British friends at the referendum result and really felt for them. They had the same "this is not the country I thought it was" reaction that I had, only for them it was something that shook up their entire identity. I should have been able to feel for Elisabeth in the same way I felt for them. Instead, she didn't move me.I also wanted more, in other ways. I wanted to hear from the people in the spray-painted house. I wanted to understand why their response was so different from mine (they spray-paint "We are already home, thank you" right back, while my response has been more along the lines of "I'm not sure I want to stay where I'm not wanted"). Eh, well. This might be the first "Brexit novel", as it's been billed by some, but it's not going to be the one that really shows how it all felt.

And, like with the other two elements, I struggled to see how all this connected with Elisabeth's relationship with Daniel and with all the stuff about Pauline Boty. Everything was interesting enough in its own right, but just didn't make a whole for me. The bits didn't fit together and coalesce. I didn't feel there was a story here, no character development, just a collection of stuff that felt kind of pointless.

Yes, Ali Smith is definitely not for me.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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