Book review: Autumn by Ali Smith is a timely reflection on Brexit, power and prevailing prejudices

Four months after the United Kingdom’s era-defining Brexit vote, Ali Smith has produced this outstanding snapshot of a country – in fact, a world – seemingly locked in a nightmarish spiral of intolerance, fear and suspicion.

Autumn by award-winning Scottish author Ali Smith is about Brexit but is also more than a novel for the British. Courtesy Penguin UK
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Ali Smith


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It was often said of novels that immediately followed the Arab Spring and dealt with the consequences that, for all their good intentions, they could have benefited from a little time and distance. Shoehorning current affairs into story­lines can often feel forced.

With her novel Autumn, award-winning Scottish author Ali Smith absolutely demolishes such concerns.

The United Kingdom’s era-­defining Brexit vote took place on June 23. Four months after the people narrowly voted to leave the European Union, she has produced this outstanding snapshot of a country – in fact, a world – seemingly locked in a nightmarish spiral of intolerance, fear and suspicion.

Smith understands the pleasures and pitfalls of writing about the present. Towards the end of the book comes a telling sentence: “Here’s an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening, writing itself right now with no knowledge of where or how it’ll end.”

It is actually at this point that some of Autumn's conceit begins to crack a little, with a lengthy tract on a forgotten 1960s pop artist just a little overdone.

But generally this is quite a beautiful meditation on how uneasy a powerless life can feel, whether because of the minimum wage, the depressing march of advancing age or, indeed, an opposing political view.

“When the state is not kind,” she writes, “then the people are fodder.”

By turns harsh and poetic, uplifting and satirical, Autumn works because the relationships and people that make up this character study – there is no real plot to speak of – are really special. Elisabeth Demand is a thirtysomething lecturer in London with a wryly detached view of the modern world. It is the time she spends with 101-year-old former neighbour Daniel Gluck, both in the present and the past, that really hits home – their strange companionship giving Smith the chance to muse on the nature of love, art, life and, well, what the referendum has done to Britain.

There is an unforgettable section in which Brexit is nailed in a way no newspaper has managed: “all across the country people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won” – but this is so much more than a novel for the British. The dreamlike opening sequence, in which Daniel appears to be in some sort of afterlife, jolts the reader into appalling reality when he comes across a swathe of “tide-dumped dead” on a sunny beach where families are playing. “The world’s sadness,” he muses.

And yet despite the title, this is not entirely a novel of decay. “There are roses, there are still roses,” feels like a defiant ending. Given this is the first of a quintet of season-based novels that explore time, Winter can’t come soon enough. Smith is at the very peak of her powers.