“All the Leaves are brown……” ‘Autumn’ – Ali Smith
Autumn is the first of a series of four Seasonal books that Ali Smith has written in response to our post-Brexit world. I don’t know about you, but I find Autumn the most difficult season of the year to face. Nature might be putting on a dazzling show in reds and gold, but all the beauty signals the dying of the year and the unavoidable approach of Wintry bleakness. I don’t fear Winter – I actually enjoy it when it arrives, but it’s the transition that feels so destabilising. It is this state of flux which Smith explores in Autumn, the uncertainty of our future now we’ve shifted direction and are heading who knows where?
At the beginning of the novel, centenarian Daniel dreams of the seashore from his hospital bed. He finds himself covered in leaves, transported to an Eden-like forest, an in-between place. This is a novel about transitions. Meanwhile, his cross-generational friend Elizabeth sits waiting in the Post Office reading Brave New World. This is not oppression from on high, but from the high street, with personal freedom curtailed by petty bureaucracy served slow and sarcastic, while you wait.
Elizabeth became friends with Daniel, her neighbour, when she was a child. Despite their age difference, they enjoyed each other’s company. Daniel’s outlook helped spark questions about the world in Elizabeth’s mind, and he introduced Elizabeth to the work of the artist, Pauline Boty, whose work she later goes on to research. The novel touches on why we need Art, why for so long we have only allowed male artists to curate the way we see the world while women are merely objectified. I found the content about Pauline Boty really inspiring, and intend to explore her work more fully as a result. Interestingly, when I looked at the sources at the back of the book, I discovered that one of books about Boty was written by Professor David Mellor (not that one), who was one of my old University tutors – what a coincidence!
Elizabeth has returned to stay at her mother’s house, and after losing touch for many years is now visiting her old friend, in his final days. Despite a decade’s absence, their importance to each other is as strong as ever. In contrast, there is an awkwardness to Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother and they seem to struggle to communicate. When her mother has the opportunity to go on a tv show about unearthing valuable items from the detritus of old junk shops, there is a nod to the way we seek comfort from nostalgia at times of uncertainty. However, when her mother unexpectedly hits it off with celebrity presenter, Zoe, she might not have won the financial jackpot, but wins something of far greater value, companionship.
Autumn captures well that disorienting car-crash feeling of the aftermath of the Brexit result. The future is an unknown and that uncertainty has not only destabilised our vision of what is to come, but has left us unsure about what the ‘now’ looks like too. Smith doesn’t attempt to ease this political instability, except with the stoic reminder that as night follows day, endings are followed by new beginnings. Yet she quietly reminds us that relationships are the fabric, they are the glue. When all else goes to pot, people are what really count and it is this reminder of the power of humanity that imbues the novel with hope.
We have to hope …..that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.