Ali Smith’s Autumn: a song for Brexit times

Ali Smith’s Autumn: a song for Brexit times

This novel ticks all the literary establishmentarian boxes: Reactionaries vs Progressives. Cosmopolitanism vs Isolationism. Sexual diversity. Feminism. Millenials against the World. All the trendy stuff. All the relevant, resonant, apt, and timely ingredients of Britain’s first “post-Brexit novel,” written hastily after that fateful referendum the results of which will continue dictating much of the political, economic, and cultural discourse for years to come.

And yet none of the above are reasons for why Autumn is a good novel. In fact, all of the above may become potent deterrents for swathes of potential readership hailing from the other side of the political barricades. We are, after all, damned with rotten luck to live in the age cleft in two throbbing wounds of populism and polarization.

Autumn is good not because of its political regalia. Autumn is good in spite of it. It’s good because of masterful narrative control, because of its intensely intimate third-person style, because of its seemingly effortless sardonic wit served up amongst bursts of genuine kindness, because of free-flowing sentences worthy of Virginia Woolf, because it spins the thread of chronological time like a 90’s kid a yo-yo.

And I haven’t even paid tribute to the core story, a tender friendship between a 30-something art scholar Elisabeth and David, a centenarian with bitter experience of Europe’s darkerst hours. As the latter tumbles from moments of sweet clarity into later-life necrosis and back, the former navigates mundane familiarities of our modern life, with its absurd bureaucracy, housing crisis, uninspired academic advisors and, above it all, the macabre shadow of once-in-a-generation political uncertainty. The historical parallels drawn between the world of Elisabeth and that of David’s continental European youth are so crudely obvious they can probably be seen from space. Yes, we get it, things are bad, thing will likely get worse:

“It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue. It is the end of dialogue.”

And now, for a striking image of obviously Trumpian foreboding:

“All across the country, the country was divided, a fence here, a wall there, a line drawn here, a line crossed there,

a whole new line of fire,

line of battle,

end of the line,


Ali Smith builds a cautionary landscape of walls, lines, demarcation, otherness, the full collection of unmistakable warning signs, but if she were to stop at that Autumn would be nothing more than a prettily worded pile of trendy banality.  Smith does one better and offers hope, nesting right there, in our everyday language, in our words, the potency of linguistic creation:

“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up.”

Language can make and un-make regimes, empires, civilizations, the entire LEGO set humanity so scrupulously built. What’s one wee Brexit in this grander context. Dandelion fuzz, nothing more. As Daniel the centenarian puts it:

“Whoever makes up the story makes up the world. So always try to welcome people into the home of your story. That’s my suggestion.”

If there’s charm in this little book it is precisely this – finding comfort, stability, and reassurance in eternal, human, and natural things. All political neurosis aside, Autumn is a desperate search for primeval safety in turbulent times.

Image: a graffiti in Bristol, courtesy of Twitter. 

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