As I said in my review of Hamid’s Exit West, this is not a political blog. However, it’s going to be nigh-on impossible to avoid the ‘B’ word in this review and, as a staunch Remainer, so much of this novel is bittersweet for me. There’s much to be amused about in Smith’s capturing of the post-referendum zeitgeist – anyone who has ever applied for a passport will sympathise with Elisabeth being told that her face ‘is the wrong size’, and it seems that passport applications went up in the immediate aftermath of the result – but the novel contains a good deal of sadness too. Sadness at the state of the world, with references to bodies of babies and their parents washed up on beaches, and sadness at barriers being erected, physically in the case of the mysterious electrified fences that appear near Elisabeth’s home, guarding ‘a piece of land that’s got nothing in it but furze, sandy flats, tufts of long grass, scrappy trees, little clumps of wildflower.’
The nearby coastline is eroding inwards: ‘her mother has drawn a red line with a Sharpie all round the coast marking where the new coast is.’ Everything is being redefined. A few pages later, in one of the short chapters which sweep across the country’s responses to the referendum, Smith writes: ‘All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there.’ National divisions are very much present: ‘All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing.’ With her repeated syntax, Smith captures the unease, the confusion, very cleanly.
Elisabeth, an Art Historian who fears her job may not last much longer, visits her former neighbour, Daniel Gluck, as he lies comatose in a care home. Daniel is at least a hundred and has been a formative part of Elisabeth’s cultural world, shaping her outlook from childhood. The narrative moves between Elisabeth’s perspectives at various ages, and also allows us to see Daniel’s wanderings as he sleeps. There’s an Ariel-like quality to his perspectives – at one point he sees himself as trapped within a pine – and he is firmly connected to trees, to foliage, in Smith’s imagery, something ancient and rooted. Obviously, autumn signals an ending, a dying away and I can’t help but see a sense of a wider loss in this.
‘The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges’
Smith’s opening line, ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,’ with its direct reference to Dickens’ French Revolution novel sets the tone of the novel – there is a dry humour to be found in our ‘new’ predicament. Elisabeth’s mother sums up much of the disquiet more directly in the novel: ‘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 is truly appalling,’ whilst also providing a great joke concerning Richard III and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop.
Cultural references abound and perhaps remind us that what might initially appear ephemeral can prove to be long-lasting. I loved the idea of the antiques-based TV competition, ‘Golden Gavels’. Literary references subtly enrich the novel. Elisabeth’s thesis looked at the ‘lost’ work of Pauline Boty, a real artist who focused on representations of, amongst others, Christine Keeler and Marilyn Monroe. It is the use of these figures which add a veracity to the life of Smith’s Daniel Gluck, a song-writer. And that is part of Smith’s genius – this is very much our world and so Daniel Gluck could so easily have existed (I’ll admit that I actually googled him to check). Her Autumn is our post-Brexit world, for good or ill, and I’m intrigued to see what her Winter looks like, what we perhaps look like a year on. As with all her novels, her prose is sharp and beautiful and thought-provoking. I think she’s one of the most significant writers of the age she is capturing so powerfully in her work.
Links to my reviews of other books on this year’s Man Booker Shortlist: