(As mentioned in my last post, the following was actually written several months ago and this book has rightly been endlessly talked about since, but I thought it was a shame to leave it sitting there without a reader to its name – so here it is, a belated blog of one of my favourite books last year!)
When it comes to the book I’m going to talk about today I have to confess I’d been counting down for its arrival like a 5 year old waits for Christmas morning. The moment I found out Ali Smith had a new novel coming out I was beaming but then imagine my joy when I discovered it was to be the first in a series of four books, each following a season.
Before I even talk about the novel itself I must be allowed to wax lyrical about this book as a physical object itself. Dear readers you will swoon if you head to your bookshop and pick this beautiful volume up. ‘Autumn’ has a fabric jacket the colour of the perfect Autumnal leaf, gold foil lettering provides the title and then we have a paper wrap around, but not just any wrap around oh no (do the Marks and Sparks advert voice here British readers) this wrap around is provided by the one and only David Hockney, probably the greatest living British artist (Heineken don’t make artists but if they did…). With shelf space at a premium in my flat I have already made a home for the following three volumes to sit along side, there’ll be Instagram photos – you just know it.
With such a build up and the ‘packaging’ offering so much, would it live up to the pedestal I had already placed it on, or would it be like received a Tiffany box with a lump of coal inside? (HA – come on, this is Ali blinkin’ Smith, if you were a betting person this would be a safe place to put your life savings). Oh, I tell you it. is. GLORIOUS. Every word, every character, every current day cultural reference she gets in there is a stroke of genius. This book has had an amazingly quick turn around from being written to ending up in book buyers hands, Smith has covered a whole host of topics that are so hot off the press they’re still being discussed on the news now. She gets in the reaction to Brexit and writes so movingly about the bodies we are seeing being washed up on beaches daily. Her writing takes the most sensitivite issues, such as a young MP being murdered, never trivialising them but finding the simple and devastating truth and laying it out in black and white for us to sit and let sink in:
A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a years worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded up sheep running off the side of a cliff
Smith shines a spotlight on the times we are living through by interweaving them with an utterly charming plot. The story itself looks at the relationship that has developed over time between an old man, Daniel Gluck, and his much younger friend Elisabeth. The love between these two is precious, I could read tomes just of the conversations between the two of them, as Gluck encourages Elisabeth to expand her imagination and introduces her to a new way of looking at the world, primarily through studying the art of long forgotten Pauline Boty. The novel jumps back and forth from the pair first meeting around twenty years ago to the current day which finds them in a care home. The flow of the prose is like a melody washing over you, never feeling like Smith is jolting from social commentary to story telling, it somehow all works beautifully. I think you can hear her voice coming through in some of the passages, and she sums up how this rather trying year has left me feeling better than I ever could:
I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it …I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars.
I hear ya’ Ali. I have no idea how Winter, Spring and Summer will follow up this first outing. My guess is that they will be written and published just as quickly so they will capture a year as it happens, make the spotlight burn that much brighter on topics that loom large in our lives in the amplified way that only fiction can. I suspect our characters will not appear again, that their time with us is done and we will be indulged with somebody else’s story (maybe they’ll make a cameo) but no matter what I’m back on the countdown until the next arrives and I’m staring at that gap on my shelf in eager anticipation!
Autumn by Ali Smith £16.99 (Hampshire Hamilton)