I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up Autumn by Ali Smith. I started reading with the expectation that I would not finish it (much like what happened to me after 100 pages of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy); at best, I would finish it with the sense that at least I had read another of the books from the Man Booker list.
The story opens with a bizarre beach scene told from the perspective of a washed-up old man. The next chapter barrels into present-day and a young woman, Elisabeth, trying to renew her passport. The back and forth of the chapters begin to link together the friendship of the older man, Mr. Gluck, who is currently in an “increased sleep period” at a care facility for the elderly and Elisabeth Demand, a “thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London,” a friendship that began when Elisabeth was living next door to Mr. Gluck as an eight-year-old. This friendship is the core of the narrative – the point around and through which the rest of the themes, characters, and ideas circle and flow.
And Autumn is rich in themes, characters, and ideas. History, culture, literature, politics, art, and the daily realities of life post-Brexit intersect and swirl through the pages. Indeed the brevity of the individual chapters coupled with Smith’s command of narrative control keep the novel unwinding quickly, but evenly. I was no longer worried about not finishing the book or being bored by the end; I couldn’t wait to keep reading as “one more chapter, one more chapter” pulled me further into the story (and farther away from housework – amen!).
But, if I’m being completely honest and without talking the high-falootin’ ideas of themes and narrative structure, I would recommend this book for the chapters of Elisabeth trying to renew her passport alone. With an adroitness I have rarely found in reading, Smith had me laughing out loud several times as the scene of a universally exasperating experience in bureaucratic madness unfolded. Perhaps sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, but there are other moments when fiction is just the right medium for expressing the absurdity of reality.
A surprise win for me. Recommend.
Here are links to a few other reviews that delve further into the layers of the book: