My rating: 3 stars
Autumn, the first book in a seasonal quartet by Ali Smith, is not easy to describe. I would say it is a compilation of fragments about how 101-year-old Daniel influenced Elisabeth’s life mixed with references to current events. But for the majority of the book, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it feels like there is no real plot being developed via the flow of the characters’ thoughts and reminiscences about life occurrences.
Daniel Gluck lives in a care home and currently spends most of his time sleeping. Some chapters are reproductions of dreams he is having. He is visited by Elisabeth Demand who pretends to be his granddaughter when in fact they used to be neighbours. She is 32 years old and a contract junior lecturer at a university in London. They first met because, when she was younger, she had to do a homework about a neighbour.
After that, they started spending a lot of time together, and she even called him her unofficial babysitter. They used to speak about art, poetry, books and photography. Those conversations influenced her future life, as she went to study history of art and do her thesis on Pauline Boty, a forgotten female artist from the Pop Art movement, who Daniel had met and adored.
The novel is set after the United Kingdom EU membership referendum, and this is the main current event delved into. The divisions created by Brexit are overtly stated. Some people were sure that they had done the right thing, while others thought that the outcome was a disaster. The way in which this disagreement is conveyed, through a paragraph full of repetitions of “All across the country”, has a musical element to it. Elisabeth also witnesses how some EU citizens are made to feel unwelcome.
Brexit is not the only current issue mentioned in Autumn, though. The novel also touches on the plight of the refugees, the lack of job security, and other economic issues, such as no-fixed-hours jobs, high prices and unaffordable houses. There is also a recurrent anecdote about how difficult it can be to renew a passport.
The flood of simplistic news, the divisions they create, the lies being spread and the political environment in general exasperate Elisabeth’s mother:
“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 is 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 liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen.”
The assortment of Elisabeth’s memories about the moments she shared with Daniel, his dreams, her day-to-day present life and the outcome of the referendum left me with quite mixed feelings. Sometimes I was in awe of how well Ali Smith crafted certain sentences and of the ideas she presented, while other times I was just bored with the actual lack of plot development. Winter will be the next book published in this seasonal collection of standalones, but I’m not eager to read it.