Ali Smith writes very, very good novels, and very good ones and then this one. Autumn is, in my fanciful hierarchy of good, very, very, very good. Mark that as three ‘very’s’. It has gorgeous writing and a lyrical tone and pacing that wraps you up and whisks you away without you realizing it. Eventually you look up and realize you’ve been reading for an hour and it’s time to X whatever chore your life demands you do instead of reading.
It’s marketed as a Brexit novel, and I guess there’s some of that in the sense that it’s set after the Brexit vote and there’s some musing about how GB got to a point of voting to leave the EU. And it’s marketed as a book in a series (so much of Smith’s work feels like a marketer conspired with her – *cough* How to be Both) with four novels each focused on a ‘season’. And sure, this one is about the late season in a life, when one is reflecting and considering closure. But it feels to me as neither a Brexit novel nor a the first in a series, but rather (and, okay, clearly a novel doesn’t have to be one thing) a novel about imagination and storytelling and friendship.
Imagination in the sense of how stories and make believe can rescue us and enchant us and make us happy. We follow Elisabeth in some patchwork periods of her life and her friendship with her elderly neighbour, Daniel. Their friendship raises questions about the artificiality of age as a determinant of connection, reciprocity in relationships and the ways friends teach us and are taught.
Here’s an example. Elisabeth is rying because she’s forgotten something important from her early childhood. And Daniel is comforting her:
“Daniel put his hand flat against her back. ‘What I do when it distresses me that there’s something I can’t remember, is. Are you listening?’ ‘Yes,’ Elisabeth said through the crying. ‘I imagine that whatever it is I’ve forgotten is folded close to me, like a sleeping bird.’ ‘What kind of bird?’ Elisabeth said. ‘A wild bird,’ Daniel said. ‘Any kind. You’ll know what kind when it happens. Then, what I do is, I just hold it there, without holding it too tight, and I let it sleep. And that’s that.’ Then he asked her if it was true that the rollerskates with the lights on the backs of them only worked on roads.”
Beautiful, right? Simple, elegant and beautiful writing. And for someone with an uncommon anxiety about remembering and forgetting, a gorgeous consolation for never remembering. Now I can just tuck my forgetting to my chest like a bird. If I remember the image that is…
There’s some other bits that are funny – Elisabeth’s mother is quite the character – and warm, but the overall tone is (appropriate to the season, I guess) elegiac and melancholy. There’s enough of a plot and character to put your hat on, but the driving force here is mood. The weaving of small scenes and perfectly crafted moments come together in novel that ultimately makes feeling a priority. Some days you probably don’t want to feel much. And on those days you can read something else, or watch Netflix, or do whatever host of things you do to avoid feeling. But on the days you want to get all snug instead feelings, then head no further than Autumn.