Novel and Notable: Autumn by Ali Smith
2017. A year of division, growth, terror, and rebuilding. A year that felt daunting in the moment and continues to feel daunting to view in retrospect.
It was also a year of beautiful and heartbreaking literature. This of course is not unique to 2017. John Steinbeck famously noted in his Nobel Prize acceptance address; “Literature is as old as speech. It grew out of human need for it, and it has not changed except to become more needed.” Steinbeck spoke those words in 1962. Many things have changed since then, but humanity’s need for literature remains constant, if not ever-increasing. This year has been proof to that effect. In this turbulent time there has been no shortage of literature produced in response to chaos, and most notably: to celebrate the persistence of the human spirit.
With so many words to explore, it was hard to choose a final book to review for Novel and Notable. It was even harder to choose (in a quest of my own creation) a book that encapsulates the year, a book which honestly and tenderly depicts the complicated entanglement of politics, people, suffering, and moving forward. Then came Autumn.
One of The New York Times Book Review’s top ten books of 2017 and a Man Booker Prize Finalist, Autumn by Ali Smith is a novel centered on hope despite the division of post-Brexit England. The story focuses on the unlikely friendship of 32 year old Elisabeth Demand and 101 year old Daniel Gluck. As a child, Elisabeth’s parents were mostly absent. As a result, her mother placed her under the frequent care of their neighbor, Daniel. Highly imaginative and playful, Daniel encouraged Elisabeth to push the boundaries of the mind and social constructions.
Oscillating through time and states of consciousness, the text begins in 2016 when Elisabeth is back in the village of her childhood, visiting both her mother at her home and Daniel as he lies near death in a care-facility. After the Brexit vote, “the village is in a sullen state.” Someone has painted the words “GO HOME” above their window. A fence with barbed wire has been erected along the perimeter of common land. Even in the post office where Elisabeth goes to renew her passport: “Nobody talks to anyone else.” In a world of ever-increasing connection, there is this sense of intense and active human detachment. But it’s not unique to the village. Smith writes, “All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.” Of course it’s more than the country, it’s all around the world. It was a year of Autumn everywhere.
As much as Autumn is about a strange and beautiful connection between two friends, it’s also about the void that occurs in place of connection. Elisabeth and Daniel’s friendship begins in her childhood. However, it is a hard-won friendship which develops from a void in both of the characters’ lives. The connection is initiated by Daniel who sees the potential in every situation and person. The first time they meet he tells Elisabeth, in all earnestness, that they will be lifelong friends. Daniel creates something out of the void that could have been and plants himself in her life. From then on their days together consist of storytelling and sincerity. He creates games for the two of them to play to help Elisabeth realize the full potential of her imagination and the problematic way people are taught to believe in boundaries. In a world that likes to proclaim things are black or white, Daniel is the voice that says “why not gray?”
The true magic of Autumn is the way it circles through time, and reveals through its roundabout narrative construction the way that people change and the impact that one life can have on another. It is through weaving from Elisabeth’s childhood to her adult life that the reader comes to understand the impact of Daniel. He helps her stay young and grow old all at once, and he teaches her to question and to imagine. It’s moments like his lessons on powerful women, like 1960’s British pop-artist Pauline Boty, which give Elisabeth a mold for her future. Daniel’s greatest lesson is teaching Elisabeth, through reading, how to love a broken world and its broken people. Everytime they get together, no matter how many years have passed, he begins their interactions the same way, by asking her what she’s reading. He says, “Always be reading something. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”
Smith’s novel is about the power of stories themselves. The power of reading and creating narratives. Autumn confirms what Steinbeck said in his acceptance speech:
“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat - for courage, compassion and love.”
In a year like 2017, literature’s importance cannot be overstated. The power of narrative and readership cannot be ignored. It’s an especially important time for college students to read. As students, we are so busy writing our own narratives, that we often forget to read. We forget to read the world and people. We forget to learn from them. We forget to love them. We forget that this is how division breeds. We forget the importance of learning from past narratives to break cycles and boundaries. Yet perhaps most importantly, we forget how integral us college-age youth are to writing the narrative of the future. As Autumn demonstrates, in a world of boundaries and divisive rhetoric there are still people who care. People who teach us the true power of connection and storytelling. Autumn is a must-read for students in search of hope and an understanding of how to move forward.
However, Autumn isn’t only an integral read for students. It’s for anyone that has ever felt broken. Anyone that has ever wondered how to believe in the good in a world so often plagued by the horrific. In Autumn, Smith writes about tired people, and it’s safe to say that after this year many of us are tired, too. 2017 was a year that often felt like the end of dialogue and understanding. It felt like a year of nostalgia, a year of people longing for a time that never was. It felt like a year of longing for a space of simplicity without the unknown. Without change. As the title might imply, Smith spends a lot of the novel meditating on the fall season. What the novel ultimately makes clear is that autumn is a season all about change and that, furthermore, it can feel so very daunting to live during autumn. What we learn through Smith’s words is that there are pockets of lightness in these years and moments that feel unbearably heavy. There are people that care. People that love one another. There is tenderness. There are two people talking about what they are reading and the ways that it shapes them.
There is life and the way it carries on.