Sometimes you come across a book on the end of year “best book” lists that captures your attention, though you don’t know why. And when you read that book, you are entranced by it but you still can’t describe it. It’s ephemeral, staying just out of reach of you fully grasping hold of it. For me, that book is Autumn by Ali Smith.
It tells of the relationship between 101 year old Daniel Gluck and 30-something Elisabeth Demand, who lived next door as a child and benefited from his kindness and attention. Now, on the eve of and just following the Brexit referendum, Daniel is not comatose but sleeping heavily in a nursing home. Elisabeth visits almost daily and reads him classics, myths, all his favorites, all the while managing through the every day demands of her own life. Interspersed with the linear narrative are Daniel’s surrealist dreams, like movies from the mind of Dali; Elisabeth’s memories of their adventures when she was a child; and scenes featuring Pauline Boty, an artist with whom Daniel fell in love as a young man.
Smith plays with the physical form of her text, adjusting margin width, using right alignment, creating waterfalls of text, and writing lists, lists, lists of lists of lists. The whole thing is beautiful, quiet, and meditative. Emotions are vivid yet composed, even when Elisabeth gets fed up with the unnecessary bureaucracy of the post office. She is all of us in that moment, a necessary and thoughtful grounding of character in the midst of everything flowing through time.
Autumn is the first book in a planned seasonal quartet (and I like the musical feeling the author’s use of the word “quartet” conjures), and I thought it such an interesting place to start. It feels like we’re starting near the end; for Daniel, it feels like that must certainly be the case. For the UK as it has been for many years, it is a clear end. For Elisabeth, though, the season and narrative feel more like a pause. For her flighty, inconsistent mother, perhaps it’s more of a new beginning. It’s such a unique place to start a seasonal exploration of life, and I’m intrigued to see how the rest of the series unfolds.
Overall, I found the book to be hopeful, light, and buoyant but not at all fizzy. And all these months later, I still can’t quite catch it. I like it. I can’t describe it. And I definitely recommend it.