Like so many of Ali Smith’s novels, there is a touching and deep relationship at the centre of Autumn’s narrative. Unlike many of the previous works, though, it is not the standard boyfriend/girlfriend, girlfriend/girlfriend, or parent/child relationship that we’ve grown so used to. Instead, it’s the more complicated friendship between protagonist Elisabeth and her childhood neighbour Daniel Gluck. Elisabeth is only eleven when the two meet, while Daniel is already considered an ‘old man’ by Elisabeth’s mother. But that doesn’t stop them from striking up a friendship that will last until Daniel’s dying days – which take up a large portion of the story. Daniel fills a hole in Elisabeth’s life; a hole not only created by her missing father, but also down to her differences with her mother and a lack of intellectual stimulation. Daniel will teach her about art and poetry, culture and literature. He will also teach her many of the beliefs and morals that will come to define her later life.
Those beliefs and morals will also play a part in Elisabeth’s difficulties as she struggles with societal changes in her adulthood. In what is perhaps the first work of fiction that focuses on Brexit Britain, we will witness Elisabeth come up against challenges that those of us who voted remain will be more than a little familiar with. We’ll see her struggle to cope in a country that has legitimised racism. We’ll see her balk at a society that has been so sucked in by a bunch of lies. We’ll see her wonder what she could have done differently, if she could have done anything to change the outcome. Sound familiar?
As Ali Smith novels have tended to in recent times, this becomes a work that is about much more than the characters that make up its centre. There are two main strands outside of the central story, the most impactful one being the nuanced focus on the EU vote and its aftermath. The attitude the novel takes to this event can be summed up by a paragraph that comes in the final third:
Rule Britannia, a bunch of thugs had been sing-shouting in the street at the weekend past Elisabeth’s flat. Britannia rules the waves. First we’ll get the Poles. And then we’ll get the Muslims. Then we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays. You lot are on the run and we’re coming after you, a right-wing spokesman had shouted at a female MP on a panel on Radio 4 earlier that same Saturday. The chair of the panel didn’t berate, or comment on, or even acknowledge the threat the man had just made. Instead, he gave the last word to the Tory MP on the panel, who used that final thirty seconds of the programme to talk about the real and disturbing cause for concern – not the blatant threat just made on the air by one person to another – of immigration. Elisabeth had been listening to the programme in the bath. She’d switched the radio off after it and wondered if she’d ever be able to listen to Radio 4 in any innocence ever again. Her ears had undergone a sea-change. Or the world had.
There are a number of such moments in the novel that deal with incidents like this, and it says a lot about Smith that she deals with such a challenging and current crisis while writing in her usual witty and wise style. Autumn is worth a read just for these moments.
Fitting in with the theme of many of her recent works, though, and with the almost revolutionary sense that Autumn instils in its readers, Smith also uses the novel to bring attention to pop art pioneer Pauline Boty. Boty was a staunchly feminist artist and the only female member of the British Pop Art movement. Due to her sometimes controversial content, and probably also the fact that she was a female using a male dominated form, she has been somewhat ignored in the years following her death. You only need do a quick Google of her work to see that this is a travesty. Smith makes this case passionately, while also showing the dangers of ignorance and prejudice that are becoming ever more apparent in today’s society.
Any Cop?: Many of Smith’s recent works have been lauded, and deservedly so. She is an inimitable stylist and her works have more layers than a very big onion. With Autumn, though, she has added something that makes it stand out above her previous efforts. Here is Ali Smith standing up for the underdog as she always done, but never has she done it so clearly, so powerfully, and on a subject that is so central to the news we are hearing on a daily basis. Autumn is a brave and impressive piece of writing.