Autumn by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2016, 270 p.

Autumn cover

This is a short novel, very short. Nevertheless it has no fewer than five epigrams. That it starts with the sentence, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times,” is perhaps a signifier that it aspires to literary memorability. It was written in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on the EU and reflects (though only in asides) the divisions in the country which that revealed but addresses more fully the latent racism which it brought to the surface. The book has that unjustified right-hand margin that is a feature of Smith’s publications and like Andrew Greig’s When They Lay Bare, which I read immediately prior to this, does not use quotation marks for dialogue, which impairs comprehension not at all.

The narrative is mainly concerned with Elisabeth Demand who as a child formed a friendship with her much older next-door neighbour, Daniel Gluck, but also has an eye for the absurdities of everyday life. Along the way Elisabeth develops an interest in the female Pop Artist Pauline Boty who Elisabeth finds has been all but removed from the histories of British Pop Art because she was a woman.

The novel is good on Elisabeth’s problematic relationship with her mother but appears a little unfocused, indeed rambling at times. It’s all easily taken in and has some amusing moments but like most of Smith’s writing (with the possible exception of How to be Both) it’s all a little flat. I don’t feel the burn.

Pedant’s corner:- “it’s one of those coincidences ……but in real life mean nothing at all” (one of those coincidences … but in real life means nothing at all,) “to taxiderm real children” (is taxiderm a verb? I thought the verb was stuff,) dismissible (dismissable.)

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