I was recently talking with someone about what I was currently reading, which was this novel, and he asked what else I had read by Ali Smith and then asked if she’s an author where I feel like I want to read every book she writes/has written, and I realized that the answer to that question is yes, even if I’m sometimes slow to get around to them: I still haven’t read How to Be Both, for example, even though I own a copy. I wasn’t too slow with this one, though: I heard about it last year, before it was actually out in the US, and was reminded about of its existence by Stefanie’s post about it last month, and promptly grabbed it when I saw it at the library recently.

The flap copy says that Autumn is “a story about aging and time and love and stories themselves,” to which my reaction was basically “yes please,” and aw, there are so many good things in this book, which centers around the friendship of Elisabeth Demand and her old (both in the sense of former and in the sense of elderly) neighbor, Daniel Gluck. In the autumn of 2016, Elisabeth is 32 and a university lecturer; Daniel is 101 and in a care home. The book is set in the autumn of 2016, but with lots of earlier bits too: we see Elisabeth at age 8, meeting Daniel, and Elisabeth at age 11, going to see The Tempest with him, and Elisabeth, somewhere in childhood, crying in his backyard, and Daniel himself not much past childhood, spending time with his sister when he was 17 and his sister was 12. A lot of the book is about Elisabeth and Daniel, but there are sections too, about Elisabeth’s sometimes-challenging relationship with her mother, and about Daniel’s unrequited love for the (real) artist Pauline Boty, and about life now, television and bureaucracy and uncertainty. There’s a lot, too, about more abstract things: art, and story, and transformation. Metamorphosis is a recurring theme (at one point, Elisabeth is reading Ovid aloud to Daniel as he sleeps; some images find their way into his dreams) but not just metamorphosis, change in general: changing seasons (this is the first of four planned volumes in a seasonal quartet) and the changes of growing up/growing old/nearing death, and unexpected life changes (like when Elisabeth’s mother finds herself surprised by love) and political changes (the Brexit vote, though not named as such, is referenced, including in a really amazing two-page section that is made up mostly of sentences beginning with “All across the country,” as in, “All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick” (60) et cetera).

I like how many good conversations between Elisabeth and Daniel there are, imagined ones and remembered or forgotten ones, and I like how good-natured and big-hearted Daniel is in those conversations, and how he teaches Elisabeth about important things, about, for example, how “whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” and how you should “always try to welcome people into the home of your story” (119).

And oh, I love Smith’s writing: this book is full of so many good descriptions and images. Like when Daniel tells Elisabeth to close her eyes and then closes his eyes, too, to describe one of Boty’s pieces to her, and then she opens her eyes just before he does and thinks of how seeing him open his eyes is “like that moment when you just happen to see the streetlights come on and it feels like you’re being given a gift, or a chance, or that you yourself’ve been singled out and chosen by the moment” (74). Or this moment when Elisabeth wakes up one morning at her mother’s house: “the little TV up on the shelf in the kitchen is on but with the sound turned down; it must have been on, lighting and darking the kitchen by itself, all night” (233). Or this, about the sidewalk in November (with a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins): “The leaves are stuck to the ground with wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring” (259).

TL;DR: this book is lovely and made me teary-eyed on the subway, twice. Also, I really like Sarah Lyall’s review of it in the New York Times.

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