Autumn by Ali Smith, shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, is the first book in her seasonal quartet. The book loosely revolves around an unusual friendship between Elisabeth and her long-term relationship with her elderly neighbor, Daniel Gluck.
Daniel is a charming companion and baby sitter for the young Elisabeth, never condescending, always respectful. He is learned, erudite, well-versed in literature and art, and an imaginative storyteller. He shares his knowledge with Elisabeth as if she were a kindred spirit, awakening her interest in art while challenging her to think critically. Theirs is a beautiful relationship, so it’s no surprise that Elisabeth continues to honor their friendship for decades.
The narrative jumps back and forth in time, gradually revealing portions of their backstories, and flashbacks to some of their decades’ old conversations and word games, all of which are an absolute delight. One passage may describe the initial meeting between Daniel and Elisabeth when she is in primary school; the next passage shows Elisabeth as a 32-year-old reading to Daniel, now 101 years old, living in a rest home for the elderly where he is either in a deep sleep or a coma. Elisabeth visits him weekly, posing as his granddaughter to gain access to his room to read to him.
Weaving in and out of the Daniel/Elisabeth relationship is Elisabeth’s relationship with her mother; references to Pauline Boty, the only female artist in the British Pop Art movement of the ‘60s; the aftermath of the contentious Brexit vote; dream sequences; stream of consciousness interludes; flashbacks; make-believe stories; and miscellaneous references to songs, literary works, and artists. It is a hodgepodge of frenzied activity, frequently without a segue or indication to alert the reader as to whether we have plunged into a dream sequence (Elisabeth’s or Daniels?), an event from the past (whose past?), or are listening to Elisabeth’s hilarious tangle with officious Post Office personnel in a bureaucratic nightmare. What holds this incoherent jumble together is Ali Smith’s extraordinary skill with words.
Ali Smith has a definite way with words. She can make them dance on the page. She can make them twist and turn, pirouette and summersault. Whether she addresses the subject of friendship, love, loyalty, bigotry, aging, the passage of time, politics of the day, political scandals of the past, sexual inequality, the media, cultural icons, and so on, she exhibits an infectious, unadulterated joy in playing with words. Her pace is energetic; her sentences, nimble; her language bursts with vitality even while critiquing political obfuscations and lies.
Autumn is the season of waning. The year is in decline as nature prepares for winter. Daniel Gluck, lying in a nursing home, is in the declining days of his life. England is undergoing a transformation as a result Brexit and will never be the same again. Autumn is followed by winter, a time when nature goes dormant. But as Percy Bysshe Shelley reminds us, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” If Ali Smith’s Autumn is an indication of what’s to come, her Winter, Spring, and Summer are sure to be treasures worth savoring.