This is the first in a planned quartet of novels from Ali Smith using the seasons as both direct reference and metaphor. In this book the main events are taking place during the transition from midsummer to autumn 2016, as Daniel (100 years old) is near the end of his life. Elisabeth,32 years old, has known Daniel since she chose him as the focus for a homework project when she was eight. Sitting at Daniel’s bedside, she reflects on her life, her career, and post-referendum Britain, but, most of all Daniel’s legacy of the stories and the discussions they had on art and books.
Autumn has been described as the first Brexit novel, possibly more by an accident of timing than overwhelming political intent; however in a brilliant two-page chapter, which encapsulates the way she uses language to describe emotions and to paint pictures, the author describes the schism affecting the country, divided by different beliefs, hopes, fears and a huge feeling of uncertainty. As we learn more we wonder whether Daniel has seen better times in the post-war years of social change, but, we also learn about the wartime experiences that he had not shared with Elisabeth. With her he was always positive, his first question was always ‘what are you reading’, and then they would talk about books, mind pictures, or artists he had known.
Smith conjures dream landscapes of organic imagery and contrasts this with some of the harsher realities of what is happening to the countryside and by extension to the country as a whole. It is a thought provoking read, shot through with a love of life, colour and contrast; we also fall slightly in love with Daniel and wish we had had such a teacher. It is a novel you will probably want to quickly re-read to pick up on all the imagery you missed first time, and I am now looking forward to Winter, the second novel, which is published this month.