Ali Smith’s Autumn is billed as the first post-Brexit novel – a description that both sells this handsome little book short and overstates its emphasis on the political and social upheaval of 2016.
The EU referendum vote serves as a interesting backdrop and lends some thematic ballast to the novel but it’s not the focus. Which is probably just as well because Smith brings no great insight into the shock decision or the socio-economic currents that underpinned it.
The beating heart of the novel is the relationship between its two main characters, Daniel and Elisabeth.
They are separated in age by more than half a century, meeting when she is a child and he is her elderly neighbour. They become close friends despite the chasm of generations that separates them and she is at his side decades later when he is on his deathbed, dreaming feverish dreams of past joy and trauma.
It’s a sweet story of platonic love in what is otherwise a somewhat scattered and disjointed book.
Sections about Elisabeth navigating British bureaucracy work well in their comedic Kafka-esque way, although they have little to do with the main story; a subplot involving Elisabeth’s obsession with artist Pauline Boty is tiresome and (to my mind at least) frustratingly tangential.
The writing too has its hits and misses. There is some delectable wordplay; but also some pretentious stylistic overreach.
Nonetheless, I will come back if Smith follows through on her plan to write Winter, Spring and Summer.