Ali Smith is attempting to make her 4th appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist with this longlisted title, her first novel since winning the Baileys Prize and the Costa Novel Of The Year with “How To Be Both” (2014). That was the only novel I have read by her to date and although I applauded its technical expertise I caught a whiff of style over substance and found it ultimately a little disappointing because I lacked a consistent emotional attachment, which is what I’m always on the lookout for when reading. Smith is a brave writer whose non-linear narratives can lead to a distancing and if slightly off-balance risks becoming a tad pretentious and ending up with a book of segments of writing (in her case often superb) rather than a coherently flowing piece.
With that in mind, theories based purely on “How To Be Both”, I hasten to add, I was a little bit unsure about beginning my Man Booker longlist reading with this book. Coincidentally for the last couple of years the first book I’ve read off the list has ended up scooping the prize, (I’m sure the judges are not bearing this in mind!) so I wanted this to be good.
And it is. For me, it is considerably better than the award-laden “How To Be Both”. The reason? I got that emotional attachment towards the relationship between the two main characters very early on and this relationship is a thread which runs throughout the novel.
It’s not going to be easy summing this up in a few words. A young girl befriends an elderly male neighbour who educates and stimulates moulding her into the adult she becomes. Now a woman, Elisabeth visits him in his care home where he resides as a semi-comatose centenarian. From the stories he has told her about the Art world she realises he knew Pauline Boty, a 1960’s female pop artist who Elisabeth bases her dissertation upon. The time of these care home visits coincides with the Brexit vote and the uncertainty and tensions which fills the country comes across superbly. Meanwhile Elisabeth’s mother has her own life changes ahead of her when she takes part in a TV antiques programme.
The writing is often sumptuous, occasionally powerfully poetic as in a section about the mood of the country in the days following the vote and incredibly realistic as the characters grapple with the frustrations of modern life. A section early on in the novel where Elisabeth attempts to use the Post Office Check and Send Service for a passport is a joy to read and is the section which really pulled me into the narrative, where I remained for most of the novel. It is also highly visual, not least by its encompassing of art and story into the narrative.
Smith is both a poet and a storyteller and her sheer unpredictability is both impressive and challenging. The reader needs to yield to her skills as there is no way to ascertain how the novel will pan out. There are digressions, plot twists, memories and dreams which make it a narcotic experience in more ways than one. On this occasion I found her writing addictive and read it quite quickly, it will repay re-reading. There’s the whole “Autumn” theme which I haven’t touched on which is part of the novel’s life-blood. If this is the standard of the longlist it is going to be a good few weeks for me and a tough choice for the judges. This is so close to being a five star read (How To Be Both I rated three stars) and is certainly shortlist worthy.
Autumn was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2016