Author Ali Smith – photo © Sarah Wood

2017 Man Booker Review: Autumn

30th August 2017

by Lisa Botwright

I was expecting Ali Smith’s writing to be self-consciously meandering and full of strident political comment. I’d read that this was a book about Brexit – famously produced in record time to make it as topical as possible.

But it’s not any of those things. To say it’s a book about politics is a reductive disservice akin to saying the Bible is about a fisherman hanging out with his friends. Rather, ‘Autumn’ is the most complex and exquisitely written meditation on the big questions of life, death and the cyclical nature of time. ‘It’s an old story so new it’s still in the middle of happening, with no knowledge of how or where it’ll end.’

Centenarian Daniel is lying in a hospice bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, while thirty- something Elisabeth reads to him. Their relationship, which stretches back two and a half decades, is illuminated in a series of flashbacks.

Elisabeth adores Daniel from the first moment she meets him, when he moves next door. He introduces her to ‘arty art’ and teaches her to look at the world in a different way. They find they’re kindred spirits, despite the seventy year age gap.

In one chapter, Daniel takes fourteen year old Elisabeth for a walk, and she complains that autumn’s on its way. ‘Daniel took her by the shoulders and turned her round. He didn’t say anything. But all across the landscape down behind them it was still sunlit blue and green…showing her summer was still there. Nobody spoke like Daniel. Nobody didn’t speak like Daniel.’

Present-day Elisabeth is a lecturer in Art History – ‘teaching students a future in the past’ – and is sad about the encroaching demise of her old friend. She also worries about the political future of the country, ‘every morning she wakes feeling cheated of something [but] the next thing she thinks of is the number of people waking up feeling cheated of something all across the country, no matter what they voted.’ Yet Daniel reminisces about the Christine Keeler affair of the 1960s, and we briefly meet a Jewish woman being harassed by police in Nazi-occupied France. This all reflects the transient nature of politics: the inevitability of change and the truism of today’s news being tomorrow’s fish and chip papers.

‘Imagine if time could be suspended, rather than us suspended in it?’ Elisabeth reflects at one point. But what a shame it would be to suspend time to avoid pain, when we never know what happiness is around the corner. Like a rose that continues to bloom even as the winter trees are ‘revealing their structure’; there’s a delicious twist as the present-day story of Elisabeth’s mother unfolds. Elisabeth has a turbulent relationship with her mother when she’s young, but sees her quirkiness with fresh eyes as an adult: ‘Was she always so witty?’ she wonders.

The first of a seasonal quartet of books, it’s unsurprising that the theme of the passing of time plays such a central role in a book about autumn: a time when youthful summer makes way to deathly winter. There’s a great deal of inevitable nature imagery. Old Daniel dreams that he’s turning into a tree. ‘Have you fallen? Are you still waiting to fall?’ he asks the leaves. ‘We’re all the old-gone leaves of all the years,’ they taunt him. ‘But they’ll always be more.’

We’re also led to understand that the way we experience time is not linear; as anyone who’s ever compared time spent in a queue to time spent having fun with friends, will know. There’s a hilarious scene where Elisabeth spends so long queueing in a post-office to get her passport application checked, that time transmogrifies fantastically. When she finally gets served, she’s told her head is the wrong size. Objecting in an incredulous way, she’s told sternly, ’Witticism will not make a jot of difference to the stipulations.’ But then the clerk softens. ‘Where are you going?’ he asks her. ‘Who knows?’ she replies. ‘World. Oyster.’

Life is short, but within it we have an infinite number of possibilities. Life is also eternal, mysterious and powerful. This book is hopeful and hopeless; pessimistic, yet optimistic. It’s just stunning.

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