Rating: 5 stars
I’m a recent convert to the writing of Ali Smith. The first of hers I picked up from the library was How to be Both, her 2016 Women’s Prize for Fiction winner. I followed that up with There But For The. There are others in the library that I will also borrow. I bought Autumn with my birthday money. I liked the sound of a quartet of books about contemporary Britain rooted in the seasons. I liked the sound of the first in the quartet being about the EU Referendum and everything that surrounds that central cataclysm in recent British life. I liked that Smith chose to start in my favourite season.
The book is beautiful. One of the main characters, Daniel, is in a care home, drifting in and out of consciousness, dreaming about his death. He’s a centenarian. The other main character is Elisabeth. She is more than sixty years younger than Daniel, but they have been lifelong friends since she was eight years old. The book floats across time, from Daniel’s dream of his approaching death to Elisabeth’s present life to the past they have shared and the pasts they haven’t shared. Time becomes a place.
I found the opening chapters difficult but reassuring, somehow. The description of Daniel’s frailty, his body in decline, his thoughts elsewhere, reminded me of the way my mum’s life ended. It still upsets me that this is the principal way I remember her, that I can’t break free of the awful images I carry of her decline and her death, that I can’t bring to mind my memories of her as a whole person so easily. It’s only been 10 months. It’s going to take time, I know. So it was hard to read about Daniel as Elisabeth and the care home workers saw him. But then Daniel’s dream world reassured me that my mum must have been in a similar dream world while she was losing ground to the dementia. Often she would behave as though she was in a different reality, talking to other people, doing practical things. I could see her, but I couldn’t see her world. Daniel is young in his opening dream, he is fit and capable. I hope that this was true for my mum, too.
As with characters in the two previous books of hers I’ve read, Smith inhabits the eight-year old head of Elisabeth perfectly, capturing her attempts to articulate the way she observes the world using language she’s not yet fully comfortable with. I enjoyed her view of what it is to grow older, and her attempts to appear older herself, but not as old as real old people.
Smith inhabits everyone’s heads perfectly, and understands that time and age have no real meaning. They’re simply tools that enable those who want to, to measure their existence against something. Their existence, their achievements, their success, their earning of respect.
The importance of reading is a key part of Daniel and Elisabeth’s friendship. On one occasion when Elisabeth’s mother is off on one of her secretive jaunts, Daniel is roped in to keep an eye on Elisabeth.
She saw through a crack in the curtains Daniel coming up the front path. She opened the door even though she’d decided she wasn’t going to.
Hello, he said. What you reading?
Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.
Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.
Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world?
Art is important, too, and Daniel teaches Elisabeth how to think by describing pictures to her and asking her how they make her feel.
The past, history, the footnote to present existence, is never far away, but equally is rarely heeded. Smith subtly weaves the attitudes that led to mid-20th century fascism together with the attitudes that led to the Leave campaign winning the EU Referendum, the lies, the proofs devised to shore up the prejudice, the division that followed, the standing by and normalising. Smith doesn’t moralise. She presents the choices made by the majority in their perceived best interests alongside the effect those choices have on everything. She presents how unthinkingly those choices are made.
Reading and art are important. They help us to think and to feel. Smith’s books are full of art and this one is no different. She pulls the pop artist Pauline Boty into her frame and celebrates the feminism and femininity she packed into her short life and her art. She pulls Christine Keeler into the frame and shows us a Christine that is different, less hard than the popular version, the cartoon Keeler who became varnished into place in the collective consciousness. Looking and seeing are important. That’s what the book is about for me. The way we look but seldom see. The way we project attitudes, prejudices, misconceptions onto people and things we don’t really know. Brexit is a case in point. There was no real debate. There was no seeing both sides of the argument and making a reasoned decision. Leave or Remain, we voted with our guts, a complex thing reduced to two bare options and not enough time to do more than react.
I enjoyed Smith’s description of one morning in her mother’s village in the week following the result. I enjoyed the way mundanity is made to seem like a harbinger of doom.
It is just over a week since the vote. The bunting in the village where Elisabeth’s mother now lives is up across the High Street for its summer festival, plastic reds and whites and blues against a sky that’s all threats, and though it’s not actually raining right now and the pavements are dry, the wind rattling the plastic triangles against themselves means it sounds all along the High Street like rain is hammering down.
Smith is clever in her ability to put her finger on the heart of the matter without the need for laboured allegories. She simply describes how things are and adds a twist of knowingness.
I loved this book, the way it flows across time and looks at the world through a lens that brings things into focus in surprising ways, so that you think about them differently. And above all, I loved the way it reassures us that all things are transient, that this too shall pass, that all will be right in the end. Without hopelessness, how can we feel hope? Without hope, how can we feel despair?
I’m diving straight into Winter. This will be interesting, because I heard Ali Smith read the first pages of the book a couple of days ago. I wonder whether she’ll interrupt my usual immersive reading.