This month we’ve been reading Ali Smith’s Autumn, a Man Booker Prize finalist which has been heralded for casting an eye over our own time. However, our reviews had mixed responses…
I have more than a few problems with this book. I don’t find Daniel’s dream sequences especially engaging, for a start. They very quickly become a chore that the reader has to endure before getting back to Elisabeth’s story, the only one that I had even a vague interest in.
It felt like Daniel’s experiences (and honestly most of Elisabeth’s as well) were written as symbolism for the sake of symbolism. When you read a book for the first time, you shouldn’t have to analyse it to enjoy it in the way the author intended. Don’t get me wrong, literary analysis has its place, but that’s not all a book should be; it should be a facet to the book that supplements the narrative.
I have other quibbles as well as this; the time-jumping gets used too much for my liking, some sections of the book like the Post Office feel like a poorly-done Kafka rip-off, and for someone who enjoys brackets so much, Ali should really learn how to use speech marks first. But my main problem is that it’s just not engaging. I was never invested in any of the characters, and no part of the story interested me.
The one bit I did like was how the relationship between David and Elisabeth was revealed; first, you’re made to think that she’s his carer, then maybe his granddaughter. However, as much as I liked this reveal, one nice plot twist isn’t going to save an entire book.
Autumn is a surreal exploration of the Autumn of 2016. The political fragmentation of the United Kingdom is explored through the fragmentation of time, and the construction and deconstruction of binaries. The division between old and young in the referendum is contrasted with the friendship of the protagonist Elisabeth and her old friend Daniel. There is comedy such as Elisabeth’s struggle to renew her passport, but even the funny moments interrogate the idea of Englishness post-Brexit. Hailed as the first Brexit novel, this text places the referendum in the background, it ripples across the text and occasionally rises to the surface. The text as a cultural work considering Brexit, also asks how cultural works can consider it? It is left to the reader to interpret its role in the text.
Many people have said to me that this novel has no plot, but they are missing the point. This is not a traditional narrative, with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, it is a reflection on a moment. The moment after the Brexit vote. Because of this the novel is best read in one sitting, to best understand everything it is trying to say. I think it is about mortality, and about how little of our time is under our control, as well as the uncertainty of Brexit and the death of European Britain, both politically and culturally. All this is wrapped in Smith’s beautifully playful prose, and some of the most sublime sentences I have read.
– Jonathan Herbert
Autumn misses the mark. Smith’s prose is self-conscious and clumsy. Her few delicate and thoughtful descriptions of nature (‘A frost had snapped millions of trees all across the country into brightness’) are overshadowed by a narrator who keeps the reader firmly at arms-length and dangling just above the surface of everything that happens in Autumn.
The subtexts of immigration and Brexit could have been handled better: fleeting references to the political debate gripping pre-Brexit Britain trail off into nothingness as Smith instead focusses on the minutia of Elisabeth’s life. Elisabeth’s thoughts range from, ‘It’s funny to be sitting on such an uncommunal communal chair’ to another revelation later: ‘She closes her eyes. Dark.’
Smith also fails to make me care about the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel, a man who is comatose in a care home at the start of the novel. Elisabeth reads to the unconscious Daniel weekly. This scene would inspire some tenderness in me if Smith did not use it as a chance to have Elisabeth read relevant quotes from Brave New World.
Autumn weeps with insincerity. Smith no doubt set out to write a novel in which everything is scrutinised for its effect on the bigger picture, and it shows. Everything is strained: the not-so-subtle literary references and the narrator’s untimely jokes. The latter scenes are so convoluted that I had to work hard to make sense of them.
If Ali Smith has done something transcendent, something compelling and influential with Autumn, it flew right over my head.
– Lexi Burgess
Autumn can’t really be said to follow a specific plot. Rather, it’s an exploration of the main character Elisabeth and her relationships- with her mother, with her elderly friend, and to a post-Brexit Britain, she can barely recognise. Smith offers us a snapshot of a defining moment in modern British history and the way this history affects every one of us.
Isolation and relationships being the main themes, Brexit hangs over the novel like a dark cloud. There is a numbness to the prose. The lack of quotation marks leaves the characters’ speech feeling distant and ineffective. The almost Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the local Post Office was one of the scenes I found most entertaining, purely because of how well the author captures that sense of not getting through to someone. The feeling of being surrounded by people, but being alone, is something that Smith writes perfectly.
This isolation inevitably leads the novel to question- what can we connect with? If we can’t relate to the people in our own country, how are we supposed to relate to an artist or an author? Do these things, arty art as the characters refer to them, even matter in a modern society? The answer very much seems to be that they matter exactly as much as you want them to. Daniel, the elderly man trapped in a coma, takes an obvious delight in wordplay and obscure art. Admittedly, this leads to his share of the narration being whimsical to the point of grating, but it’s still interesting to see the way Smith’s writing style can switch agilely from mind-crushing boredom to such colourful descriptions.
Overall, Autumn is a very enjoyable read for those interested in current British society. Although the language choices can sometimes make the text difficult to parse, it’s a fresh look at Brexit Britain that is both thought-provoking and poignant.
– Issy Pyle
Interested in getting involved with the book club? Email Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.