Autumn is the first offering of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, described on the book jacket as “four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are)-and it casts an eye over our own time.”
Everyone wants to talk about Autumn’s politics. But I want to talk about the skill Smith displays in writing a book that is literally…fall.
Appreciation for Autumn snuck up on me. It starts so slow, see, I hardly knew it was happening. The narrative slips from surrealism into the mundane, like an Indian Summer ending. Underneath everything is an expectant humming. The prose, the way the plot unfolds, even the main character is a personification of autumn.
Autumn by Ali Smith
Autumn tells the story of life long friends Elisabeth and Daniel. Well, Elisabeth’s life, anyway; they met when she was eight and he nearly eighty. At the books opening, Elisabeth is 32 and wry, a “no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago.” Daniel is 101 years old, dying in a nursing home. Faithfully visiting him are bright spots in the depressing minutiae of Elisabeth’s life.
Smith moves through time and space, illuminating her characters’ lives throughout Europe and the twentieth century. This time travel works to weave disparate themes: from morality to economics, aging to politics, British Pop Art to family ties.
The narrative power of Autumn lies in its slow unraveling. Ali Smith masterfully imbues fall into her novel using pace, word choice, sentence structure, and characterization.
In Autumn, darkness is overtaking the light. Most characters feel stuck. Elisabeth in her life, her mother in her country, Daniel in a coma, service workers in their jobs. They give voice to the suspicion that, like the heralding of fall, the darkness is edging out the light in their lives.
Laying It Bare
A hallmark of fall is the leaf shedding of deciduous trees. The characters in Autumn have some things to let go, too. Conventions, mostly. Some preconceived notions about who they are and how they love. A good bit of ego and expectations.
Some passages are even reminiscent of looping, falling, leaves. In one chapter of Autumn, every sentence begins with “All across the country…”
A Time For Reaping
Autumn is set in harvest season, both physically and existentially.
Elisabeth’s deep rooted perceptions meet the scythe in her adulthood. Her feelings towards her mother are evolving. Childhood conversations with Daniel provide later inspiration for her graduate thesis. Tender attentiveness from a “young old” Daniel towards Elisabeth yields tender attentiveness from Elisabeth towards an “old old” Daniel.
An Unexpected Blossom
Elisabeth is fall personified, full of slumbering power.
She’s entered a latent period-professionally, personally, on her journey of adulting. Yet, in a landscape where her society, peers, and family seem to be in the same boat, Elisabeth offers unique and funny insights. She surprises her professor with her academic discoveries in the same way she surprises readers with her dead-on assessments.
Elisabeth is the blossom one doesn’t expect, splashy on a late October bare bush.
Autumn by Ali Smith is a deeply satisfying read: cozy, despite it’s slightly depressing characters. Illuminating despite it’s latency. Timeless despite it’s topicality.
What have been your favorite books this year? I’d love to hear your recommendations. Share this article so people know you read.