“All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU?”
Autumn creates a curious window through which to ponder the UK at the start of 2016. Set in the months following Brexit, the referendum where the British voted to leave the European Union, the story gently unfurls itself - though I feel you never really get to look it in the eyes.
If we were talking about music, this book would be more of a soundscape than a song.
Ali Smith (How to be both, The Accidental) like an artist, layers time and blends fact and fiction like color to, quite astonishingly, paint a coherent and reflective landscape that mirrors present day.
It was sort of strange to read a book that is set in real life and that displays events so familiar. Being from the UK, I felt like reading Autumn was a visit home, experiencing on a new level, reports from friends and family of the fear, confusion, and frustration spreading through the British public. I felt simultaneously sad that racism and disconnection was, and is developing, but hopeful in realizing the power of this novel, of writing and art.
Smith uses her characters to shine a light on a very real, very gray situation. Rather than having an outright debate with someone in the street, her characters represent individual ideologies. Her writing, which is beautifully poetic, helps you get to know a character before you discover their opinions, making it more likely that you’ll actually consider them. Existing in print and imagination, you can’t walk away from or dismiss her characters, giving a fuller depiction of the current situation in the UK.
For a moment I thought that maybe I enjoyed this book and felt it was powerful because I feel aligned with Smith’s political stance - but then I realized, Smith’s stance is less political and more humanistic. At the heart of this book are human relationships.
The primary plot follows Elizabeth and Daniel. We skip back and forth in time, learning how a young Elizabeth meets her “old” neighbor, and slowly forms a very special friendship. It’s hard not to fall in love with her childish innocence and Daniel’s optimistic and creative perspectives, which in turn challenge the child’s inherited views and self-doubts. Daniel Gluck is such a wonderful character, with softness and uniqueness akin to a mystical creature. He’s funny, sharp and apparently wise. His name, Gluck, meaning in German “happiness” or “luck” mirrors one of the three modes of social engagement that Smith illustrates. He is the optimist. The one that still finds magic in the world.
“Words aren’t plants, Elisabeth said. Words are themselves organisms, Daniel said. Oregano-isms, Elisabeth said. Herbal and Verbal, Daniel said. Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about.”
Elizabeth feels the closest to the reader, the realist. Her adult self sees the world as Smith reveals it to us. Through her thoughts and observations, we move from a place of unknowing to knowing. Just as Daniel encourages Elisabeth to always ask why, Elisabeth challenges the reader to always understand the reasoning behind their opinions.
And then there’s Elizabeth’s Mother. The character I wanted most of all to change. For me, she represents anger and frustration inefficiently directed at everyone and no-one. Hardly (if at all) referred to by name, she is the detached majority. Rarely connecting to the modern world, she makes judgments based on facts she never substantiates. With no faith in the government or people to make positive change, she is just kind of floating through it all
Like a poet, Ali Smith draws a visceral, and for me, accurate picture of the UK last year. She touches on so many social issues, in multiple layers of historical referencing, time and allusion to fact colored by fiction. This novel made me think about all kinds of issues, from immigration to sexism; all kinds of people, the elderly, children, those fleeing their homes; about the past and the future; about my family and about the nature and role that art, whatever form, could play in it all. I finished it feeling heavy, but also inspired, and a little bit in awe of how someone could so cleverly put all of this into words - this being the complicated zeitgeist that created the conditions for Brexit, with a map of voices, thoughts and emotions, distinctly of our time.
This book is the first of four - a seasonal quartet that will chronicle a post-Brexit UK.