"Perhaps part of the reason she was able to write this novel about Brexit so soon after the referendum, is that it essentially retreads past work"by Anthony Cummins / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) Has a certain staleness crept into Ali Smith’s fiction? It feels almost ungrateful to ask. Her playful, unfettered style enables great intimacy with her characters as well as essayistic reflection and phantasmagorical flight. But perhaps part of the reason she was able to write this novel about Brexit so soon after the referendum, is that it essentially retreads past work. The first in a planned quartet, Autumn brims with erudite puns and riffs on the absurdities of sexism and xenophobia; one character encounters unyielding bureaucracy in a village post office; another turns into a tree. The multi-threaded narrative flits between the 1960s and the post-referendum present in which we meet Daniel, an elderly immigrant, and Elisabeth, an art lecturer who is his only visitor at the care home where he is dying. Neighbours when Elisabeth was growing up, they became fast friends despite her mother’s suspicions about his nationality and sexuality. We’re shown his impact on Elisabeth’s education as he introduces her to the work of critically neglected Pop artist Pauline Boty. Each strand hymns the need to keep an open mind and there’s righteous if not wholly unsympathetic criticism of those who don’t. Before the vote, Elisabeth’s mother dislikes “people not caring whether they’re being lied to.” Afterwards, Elisabeth feels democracy has become “a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with.” You suspect almost all of Smith’s readers will agree, which may ultimately be part of the novel’s problem.