by Ali Smith
“The way we live, in time, is made to appear linear by the chronologies that get applied to our lives by ourselves and others, starting at birth, ending at death, with a middle where we’re meant to comply with some or other of life’s usual expectations, in other words the year to year day to day minute to minute moment to moment fact of time passing. But we’re time-containers, we hold all our diachrony, our pasts and our futures (and also the pasts and futures of all the people who made us and who in turn we’ll help to make) in every one of our consecutive moments / minutes / days / years, and I wonder if our real energy, our real history, is cyclic in continuance and at core, rather than consecutive.” - Ali Smith
I enjoyed reading this novel about Autumn, a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. In Ali Smith's novel two old friends—Daniel, a centenarian, and Elisabeth, born in 1984—look to both the future and the past as the United Kingdom stands divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand-in-hand with hopelessness. The seasons continue to parade on their own way.
The novel proceeds with flashbacks interspersed with the present rather than in a consecutive, chronological narrative. Elisabeth ruminates on her youth and moments earlier in her life that formed her relationship with Daniel. Time becomes a central aspect of the story as highlighted by the following quote:
“Time travel is real. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.” (p. 175) Of course this is a metaphorical statement with the travel occurring in our mind's eye.
The novel's structure might be compared to a collage and thus similar to the art of Pauline Boty, a founder of the British Pop art movement who is a character in the book. This approach is highlighted by the vagaries of Elisabeth's memory; while there is also a frequent use of contrast as in the moment when immediately following a difficult situation for Elisabeth the narrative shifts to Daniel asleep in his room (p 111).
The story opens with a reference to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and then there’s a longer reference to a divided country filled with polarities: “All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked”? (p. 60) This is a reference to the impact of the Brexit vote and provides a contemporary context for the novel. The novel suggests a certain view of this event when Daniel tells Elisabeth, “So, always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” (p. 119). Perhaps our stories don’t belong to us alone? This can be seen as a call by the author for inclusion and diversity rather than building fences and keeping people out.
Smith alludes to and mentions many other authors and literary works, including William Shakespeare, John Keats, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell. Overall this was a meditation on the meaning of richness and harvest and worth. Autumn is the first installment of Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, and shines a light over our own time: Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearean jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s pop art. Wide-ranging in time-scale and light-footed through histories, Autumn is an beautiful story about aging and time and love—and stories themselves.