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Book review: Autumn by Ali Smith

I might have come to Autumn a little uninformed, believing it to have been written by Zadie Smith, rather than its true author, Ali Smith.

However, the aesthetic was right, as the leaves were yellowing and the frosts remaining a little longer on the grass in the morning, so it seemed like the right time to begin reading Autumn.

Autumn is part of the Seasonal series that Smith has written in relatively quick succession, with Spring recently released. It is the story of Elisabeth, a precariously employed academic who befriended her older next door neighbour when she was a child.

Later, she visits the former neighbour in a nursing home, where he is often asleep and dreaming of a more youthful self.

Amid this story is that of the pop artist that Elisabeth is studying, and her role as a founding figure in British pop art before her early death.

An appealing part of the story is the way it touches on the malaise and absurdity of contemporary life – I have had a similarly frustrating experience of trying to renew a passport as the one Elisabeth had (which left me in tears at the counter of the local post office). Elisabeth is first told that in her photograph, her head is too big, and on returning with another photo, that her eyes are too small.

“He writes in a box … HEAD INCORRECT SIZE.” Then, he “folds the Check & Send receipt and tucks it into the envelope Elisabeth gave him with the form … He hands it back to her across the divide. She sees terrible despondency in his eyes. He sees her see it. He hardens even more.”

However, on the whole, I had trouble engaging with Elisabeth’s story, and felt it touched too lightly on all of the issues. There were themes of time and memory, but I failed to connect with them. Billed as the first post-Brexit novel, perhaps it resonates more with those who are geographically closer to that political landscape.

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