Autumn by Ali Smith 2016
Ali Smith is a 60 year old Scot who writes essays, novels, and plays. Short-listed for the Booker Prize twice and winner of the Whitbread Award, she is an outstanding novelist who is less well known in this country than warranted.
I loved her earlier books that I read, ‘Companion Piece’ and ‘Artful’, so I picked up ‘Autumn’, the first installment in a seasonal quartet followed by Winter, Spring and Summer, the latter published in 2020.
‘Autumn’ is a wonderful book. It tells the story of Daniel Gluck and Elisabeth (with an ‘s’) Demand who meet when 8 year old Elisabeth’s teacher assigns her to write a paper after interviewing a neighbor. Her challenging mother tells her to make it up rather than interview Daniel, an ‘elderly’ man living next door in the town they moved to after her husband left them. Elisabeth writes such a clever essay about being told to lie that her mother shares it with Daniel who forms a wonderful, avuncular, tutorial, friend relationship with Elisabeth. We meet them years later when Daniel is in palliative care and Elisabeth returns to read to him by his bedside. She reads ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, the first line of which is riffed in the first line of the novel.
As in her other novels, there are detailed stories within the main story. The Profumo Affair and Christine Keeler from the 1950’s is a major presence as is the only British Pop Art star, Pauline Boty. I’d never heard of her but Wikipedia indicates that she was an important influence in the 1950’s. These are tied in because Daniel was in love with her at one point. In another tangent, the title ‘Autumn’ is derived from a one hit wonder group whose song in 1962 was written by Daniel. Oh the lives that lie behind the facade of ‘old people’!
This is a quiet and beautiful book about a relationship, love, commitment, and making a life. We learn about both Daniel’s and Elisabeth’s lives in tiny vignettes, flashbacks, and hints, Smith’s stock in trade. Subtle and a writer of beautiful sentences, Smith has written a great read. Can’t wait to dive into the rest of the seasons.