Autumn by Ali Smith, book review: ‘One of the delights of her work is its down to earth realism’

Autumn, the first in an upcoming four-part book series, which will also include Winter, Spring and Summer, is set in the post-Brexit present day 

Lucy Scholes
Thursday 20 October 2016 10:19 BST
Ali Smith's new novel, Autumn, shows that her finger is firmly on the social and political pulse
Ali Smith's new novel, Autumn, shows that her finger is firmly on the social and political pulse

Already acknowledged as one of the most inventive novelists writing in Britain today, with her new novel, Autumn, Ali Smith also proves herself to be one of the country’s foremost chroniclers, her finger firmly on the social and political pulse. Autumn – the first in a planned four-part series: Winter, Spring and Summer to follow – is anchored in the specifics of our post-Brexit present day, the world we’re living in in real time played out in parallel in Smith’s text – “Here’s an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening.” Smith has played with time in previous work – think of her Bailey’s Prize-winning novel How to be both, which intertwined two separate stories, one set in 15th century Italy, the other in contemporary Britain, in the most interesting of ways – and again, here in Autumn time is something the warp and weft of which can be bent on a whim: past, present and strange timeless limbos exist alongside each other.

When it comes to the here and now, Elisabeth is a 32-year-old junior lecturer in history of art (given the recent news about A-Levels in this subject being axed, Smith presciently captures the zeitgeist) on a casual contract at a London university; “living the dream” as her mother describes it, “and she is,” Smith adds wryly, “if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago.” Smith knows the deal, she’s not living in an ivory tower, and one of the delights of her work is its down to earth realism – we first meet Elisabeth at the Post Office doing a “Check & Send” application for a new passport. At the same time, Autumn displays much of the mischievous innovation that defines Smith’s writing. Woven in alongside Elisabeth’s story is that of Daniel Gluck – now 101 and dying in an assisted care facility, Elisabeth’s beloved next door neighbour and confidant when she was a child, who introduced her to “arty art” and taught her to always be reading a book.

Fiction and fact then converge as Smith injects a real life character into the mix – Pauline Boty, a female British Pop Art artist, largely now forgotten, the victim of both a tragic early death and male privilege (“There’s next to no critical material,” Elisabeth’s dissertation supervisor tells her in an attempt to dissuade her from writing about Boty. “That’s one of the reasons I think it’d be a particularly good thing to do,” Elisabeth counters). There’s also a brief episode set in 1940s France when we see a young woman resisting internment. “When the state is not kind,” Daniel, a man who’s lived through the very worst of times (this is how the novel begins, channelling the opening of A Tale of Two Cities) – from the Second World War, through the Profumo affair (Boty painted a famous portrait of Christine Keeler: everything is interlinked!) – “Then the people are fodder.”

Out 20 October for £16.99, published by Hamish Hamilton

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