Autumn is a take on popular culture and a meditation in a world growing ever more bordered: what constitutes richness and worth?
Autumn is the first instalment in Seasonal: four stand-alone stories, separate yet interconnected and cyclical, exploring what time is and how we experience it.
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By Rachel Redford on 08-11-16
a collage of leaf-fall & never-ending stories
If you've met Ali Smith's work before, you'll know not to expect a conventional chronological story! Elisabeth Demand in present time is a 32-year-old junior history of art lecturer 'living the dream' according to her mother, but not so great for Elisabeth with no permanent contract and living in her old student flat. The narrative threads weave in and out of the previous 24 years going back to Elisabeth as an 8 year-old forging the loving friendship with a new elderly neighbour Daniel Gluck, the first seriously interesting person she has ever known who collects art (particularly the work of 1960s pop artist Pauline Boty who died in her twenties and in real time now outside the novel is being rediscovered), and who always asks Elisabeth what she is reading. As a 32 year-old, Elisabeth is visiting the much-loved Gluck now aged 101 who is slipping in and out of a dreamworld of memories as he slowly dies.
Pauline Boty and her work is one of the recurrent themes of this inventive and allusive book; along with the Profumo Affair (Boty painted a picture of Christine Keeler sitting on that chair backwards); and Elisabeth's repeated efforts to get her Check and Send passport application sent off only to find her head in her photo is ruled to be the wrong size after queuing for hours at the Post Office. These themes are tightly secured within an up to the very last moment post-Brexit Britain (how did this book come out so soon??), although neither the word 'Brexit' nor 'referendum' are mentioned - just the distress and perplexity of the country; and an unequal society regulated with mind-numbing rules.
What provides another layer to this intriguing, linguistically inventive, stream-of-thoughts novel are the allusions. This is Autumn (the other three seasons are to follow), the season of falling leaves, Keatsian mists and sycamore wings, all part of the pattern of dream and reality, death and renewal, loss and rediscovery: the fabric behind the novel's never-ending stories. Elisabeth is reading Brave New World, which is ironic as she waits her turn in the Post Office queue, and there are echoes in Smith's syntax throughout of the Tale of Two Cities - the best of times, the worst of times. In the very last sentence of the novel she has tucked in an unacknowledged quoted phrase 'wanwood, leafmeal' from Gerard Manley Hopkins's beautiful and apposite poem of 'unleaving' and grieving, 'Spring and Fall', which says it all about this season.
I haven't heard this narrator Melody Grove before, but she is impressive with what must be a very difficult book to read out loud. She helps make sense of what is sometimes quirky and quite difficult to follow, and makes Elisabeth from child to adult a real person. This is a novel you could listen to more than once and find more in it each time.
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