Autumn, A Novel by Ali Smith

Long-Listed for the Man Booker Prize

Autumn, A Novel, by Ali Smith
Autumn, A Novel, by Ali Smith

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That’s what it felt like for Keats in 1819. How about Autumn 2016? Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic, once-in-a-generation summer. Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand-in-hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.

Ali Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. It is the first installment of her Seasonal quartet—four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are)—and it casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearean jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s pop art: the centuries cast their eyes over our own history making.

Here’s where we’re living. Here’s time at its most contemporaneous and its most cyclic.

The seasons roll round as ever. From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting, light-footed, time-travelling novel. This is a story about right now, this minute; about ageing and time and love and stories themselves. Here comes Autumn.

‘In a country apparently divided against itself, a writer such as Smith is more valuable than a whole parliament of politicians’ Financial Times

‘Undoubtedly Smith at her best. Puckish, yet elegant; angry, but comforting’ The Times

‘A beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities… The first post-Brexit novel’ Guardian


‘Terrific, extraordinary, playful… There is an awful lot to lift the soul’ Daily Mail

‘Bold and brilliant’ Observer

Ali Smith is the author of Free Love and Other Stories, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, Artful, How to be both, Public library and other stories and Autumn. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Folio Prize. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge.

More Reviews

Autumn is about a long platonic friendship between an elderly man and a much younger woman. His name is Daniel. He’s 101. . . .

Her name is Elisabeth. She’s a 32-year-old fitfully employed art lecturer at an unnamed university in London. She comes to read to, and be with, him. . . .

There’s a bit of a Harold and Maude thing going on here. . . .

As Elisabeth and Daniel talk, and as Elisabeth processes the events of her life, a world opens. Autumn begins to be about 100 things in addition to friendship. It’s about poverty and bureaucracy and sex and morality and music. It includes a long and potent detour into the tragic life and powerful painting of the British Pop artist Pauline Boty (1938-66), whose work, Smith makes plain, should be better known. . . .

This is the place to come out and say it: Ali Smith has a beautiful mind. I found this book to be unbearably moving in its playful, strange, soulful assessment of what it means to be alive at a somber time. . . .

Smith is Scottish, and she’s written plays and journalism in addition to many novels and books of stories. I’ve not read all of them, though I will. I have no early quibble with the novelist Sebastian Barry’s comment that she may be ‘Scotland’s Nobel laureate-in-waiting.’ Autumn has a loose structure, almost like that of a prose poem. This form is perfect for Smith, because her mind will go where it wants to go. And where her mind goes, you want to follow. . . .

I suspect that this shrewd and dreamy, serious-but-not-solemn novel will be an uncommonly good audiobook, for people who are into that sort of thing. Spring can really hang you up the most, but for now I am struck by, and stuck on, Autumn.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“[Elisabeth and Daniel] are each other’s favorite people in the world, even though their paths cross only intermittently and he is 69 years old than she is. . . .

Their extraordinary friendship forms the moral center of this beautiful, subtle work, the seventh novel by Smith, who consistently produces some of Britain’s most exciting, ambitious and moving writing. . . .

Smith teases out big ideas so slyly and lightly that you can miss how artfully she goes about it. . . .

Smith’s writing is fearless and nonlinear, exploring the connectivity of things: between the living and the dead, the past and the present, art and life. She conveys time almost as it if is happening all at once, like Picasso trying to record an image from every angle simultaneously. . . .

Smith’s writing is light and playful, deceptively simple, skipping along like a stone on the surface of a lake, brimming with humanity and bending, despite everything, toward hope. . . .

‘Whoever makes up the story makes up the world,’ Daniel says at one point, ‘so always try to welcome people into the home of your story.’ That’s what Smith does, all the time, tries to welcome people in. The best parts in Autumn, the most moving parts, the transcendent parts, come during Elisabeth and Daniel’s conversations about words, art, life, books, the imagination, how to observe, how to be. Theirs is a conversation that begins mid-paragraph and never ends.”
—Sarah Lyall, The New York Times Book Review

“’All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.’ That might sound like present-second America, but it’s actually Scottish novelist Ali Smith—with a leg up from Dickens—describing post-Brexit Britain in Autumn, the first of a planned quartet of season-based novels. Smith is well known for taking an elastic approach to words. Here, she extends that courtesy to time itself. . . . Layered, resonant, and wittily clever, Autumn confirms that Smith is a novelist for our time—‘time’ meaning at least the next four years.”
—Emily Donaldson, The Toronto Star

“With customary intrepidness, the celebrated Scottish author of several previous books of fiction raises questions about aging, the elasticity of friendship, aesthetic politics, and the meaning of fame. . . . Like any successful novel of ideas, Autumn doesn’t end; it reverberates in one’s bones, recalling Eugenio Montale’s argument in The Second Life of Art, that the power of a book, painting, dance, or any art form is not a culminating catharsis but a recurring echo. Thus Smith’s autumnal leaves cling to trees as the questions and quandaries linger. . . . Autumn shimmers with wit, melancholy, grief, joy, wisdom, small acts of love and, always, wonder at the seasons.”
—Valerie Miner, The Boston Globe

“If authors can be seasonal, then Scottish writer Ali Smith is, to my mind, a summer novelist. Her fiction, even when it depicts upsetting events, has an Arcadian atmosphere reminiscent of As You Like It, as if her characters were wandering through a green glade on a sunny day. . . . Psychological complexity is not a hallmark of Smith’s work, but its buoyancy and charm more than make up for that. In Britain, Smith has won the Whitbread, the Goldsmiths, and the Costa prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker three times. American readers ought to be better acquainted with her genius. . . . Smith knows how to tease the glory out of the most plainspoken English. . . . Smith’s literary spirit is essentially playful, and in Autumn it finds its counterpart in a little-known (but real) painter of the Pop Art period, Pauline Boty. . . . Boty was beautiful and fearless, a free spirit who dabbling in acting and, as Elisabeth sees it, had the rare ability to represent female pleasure and joy on canvas. . . . You can see why Smith thinks of the painter as a kindred spirit. . . . Autumn’s most daring formal move is to attempt the immediacy of journalism, depicting the national mood while the nation is still feeling it. . . . ‘That’s the thing about things,’ reads the novel’s second sentence. ‘They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.’ But Autumn hopes to remind us that’s as true of the bad things as it is of the good. . . . At first Smith’s choice to start with autumn seemed out of character, but of course that means that this ambitious four-novel sequence will end with summer and Smith in her element. If we are all very lucky, perhaps the world will catch up with her there, too.”
—Laura Miller, Slate

“The stunning Autumn is the first of a projected quartet of seasonal novels by Scottish author Ali Smith. . . . Set in the factional, jingoistic post-Brexit United Kingdom—where ‘what had happened whipped about itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm’—Autumn is a compact story of the unlikely friendship of two neighbors: Daniel, an iconoclastic old man with a house full of art, books and music, and Elisabeth, an impressionable, lonely young woman, 70 years his junior. . . . If fall is the twilight of the year, what will Smith’s long cold winter bring—and better yet, her spring and summer? . . . A triumphant story of a May-December friendship within a divided Britain.”
—Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness

“What kind of art will come out of this moment? If Ali Smith’s Autumn is a harbinger of things to come, the work that emerges over the next decade will be extraordinarily rich. The novel, the first book in a quartet inspired by the seasons, considers post-Brexit Britain at the tail end of last summer, experienced through the perspective of a 32-year-old art history lecturer named Elisabeth. But its ambition and craft allude to—and cite—great works of literature, from  Brave New World to The Tempest. Through Smith’s dazzling, whimsical feats of imagination, a news cycle described by Elisabeth as ‘Thomas Hardy on speed’ becomes the backdrop for a modernist interrogation of history.

Autumn, like Smith’s last book, How to Be Both, is a gorgeously constructed puzzle that challenges the reader to solve it, with a narrative that darts back and forth in time and space. . . . As the novel proceeds, she layers together fragments of books and paintings and song lyrics in an act of literary decoupage, as if to mimic the fragile patchwork of national identity. . . . The work Autumn seems most indebted to is T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, poems that are also structured loosely around the seasons, and in which nature has a symbolic power. Eliot, like Smith, considers time as a flexible entity, with memory a guiding force that allows people to find divine meaning in the universe. And Four Quartets, like Autumn, was written amid great national turmoil, during World War Two. But Smith has a kind of irrepressible sense of joy that peeks out through the darkness. . . . Smith, in reckoning with the catastrophe and wreckage of a fraught historical moment, picks through it just as precisely to reveal the beauty and the humanity buried deep below the surface.”
—Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic

“The first of a projected quartet, Autumn hovers around the season of harvest and final things, but the possibility of transformation is also very much in the air. . . . A novel that, under all its erudition, narrative antics, wit and wordplay, is a wonder of deep and accommodating compassion.”
—Ellen Akins, The Washington Post
“Smith’s novel plays an intimate melody against a broader dissonance, probing the friendship between an art historian and an aging songwriter as they grapple with personal predicaments and a perilous world.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“Could Scottish writer Ali Smith be J.D. Salinger’s natural heir? It’s not as preposterous as it sounds. Not since Salinger’s plucky English orphan, Esmé, soothed an American sergeant’s no-longer-intact faculties at the end of World War II has a writer so artfully and heartrendingly captured the two-way lifeline between preternaturally wise children (mainly girls) and young-at-heart gentle souls (mainly men) who forge special friendships that have nothing predatory or Lolita-ish about them. . . . Autumn again knits together an astonishing array of seemingly disparate subjects, including mortality, unconventional love, Shakespeare’s Tempest, a rhyming advertisement jingle, and the xenophobia underlying both Nazism and current populist neo-nationalism. . . . Smith is better at making tight connections than most airlines. . . . Free spirits and the lifeforce of art—along with kindness, hope, and a readiness ‘to be above and beyond the foul even when we’re up to our eyes in it’—are, when you get down to it, what Smith champions in this stirring novel.”
—Heller McAlpin, NPR

“Delights in puns and lyric reveries. For a book about decline and disintegration, Autumn remains irrepressibly hopeful about life, something ‘you worked to catch, the intense happiness of an object slightly set apart from you.’”
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

“I find reason for excitement when Ali Smith, with thirteen titles to her credit and numerous awards and honors, brings out a new work. A Scot now residing in London, she doesn’t write ‘state of Britain’ novels. She is too subtle for that, but her work is clearly responsive to social and political issues. ‘The first post-Brexit novel,’ some critics have called her latest work, Autumn. Indeed, the fact of the referendum, the emotions it raised, and the sense of ending—or beginning—that accompanied the vote run at times as a litany, lists of hopes or complaints, in a recitation of divisive uncertainty. What is certain is, as the title asserts, that a cycle is unfolding: winter seems to lie ahead. But the novel has aspects that subvert that fear. . . . The surprises abound in the novel, but the mood is balanced, reflective, mature. The prose styles vary, structure reflecting the hectic turns of public feeling, the abrupt shifts in time and mood. . . .  But in inverse proportion to defeat is the great pleasure of the reading. Smith’s prose is seductively simple, beguiling, its effects hard-won.”
—Edward T. Wheeler, Commonweal

“[Smith’s] risk-taking, convention-defying fiction resembles a dizzying high-wire act performed above stiffer competition. Autumn is another breathless feat. . . . It engages acutely and beautifully with topical concerns and perennial issues. . . . Smith muses on art, literature and memory, plus the transience of life and the horror of Brexit. Some of her meditations are imbued with autumnal tones and textures (melancholy, regret, nostalgia); others are flecked with wit. As ever, Smith regales us with endless wordplay. . . . Smith’s most substantial components speak volumes with poetic intensity and lucidity about an enduring companionship, a fractured Great Britain, the tragedy of aging and the cyclical nature of time. . . . Autumn is the first installment of Smith’s ‘Seasonal’ quartet. If this brilliantly inventive and ruminative book is representative of what is to come, then we should welcome Smith’s winter chill whatever the season.”
—Malcolm Forbes, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Hums with life. . . . [Smith] is indeed a writer in her prime. Autumn is clever and invigorating. The promise of three more books to come is something to be savored.”
—Claire Hopley, The Washington Times

“In her new novel, the always intriguing Ali Smith portrays an odd friendship between a centenarian and the neighbor girl—now a young woman—he cared for in her childhood. Smith blends conventional realist narrative with passages that read almost like prose poems to create an elegiac story that’s decidedly more than the sum of its parts. . . .  [Autumn] offers a piercing view of an unsettled England in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote. . . . Much of this novel’s pleasure flows from Smith’s supple prose. She indulges in word play with an almost Joycean zest.”
—Harvey Freedenberg, BookPage

“[A] vision of post-Brexit England. . . . Ekphrasis permeates the novel Autumn, which itself seeks to capture in words the fading, abstract beauty of that ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,’ as Romantic poet John Keats wrote in his ode To Autumn. . . . [Smith’s] novel is marked with quiet, brave notes of hope.”
—Olivia Ho, The Straits Times

“Smith dances across dreamscape, memory, and reality in a novel by turns funny, touching, and fascinating—in terms of character and of history. The rare friendship of an old man and a young girl whose father has vanished (and whose mother disappears more than occasionally) becomes a vessel for salvation as her life is newly graced with love and with meaning. Old he may be but as she grows toward adulthood, her life infinitely enriched by the years spent with her highly cultured friend, his journey takes him back to the ghosts of his past, forward toward the darkening reality of the present world and of the world beyond. Trumpworld in America has nothing on the unpleasant present in England but Smith’s light touch, transcendent imagination and never-cloying compassion transport us beyond the threat of evil and of old age, reminding us (thank God) of history’s arc and of our own humanity. Each of Smith’s novels is a wonder; Autumn is beyond wonderful.”
Betsy Burton, The King’s English, Salt Lake City, UT

“This splendid free-form novel—the first in a seasonally themed tetralogy—chronicles the last days of a lifelong friendship between Elisabeth, a British university lecturer in London, and her former neighbor, a centenarian named Daniel. Opening with an oblique, dreamy prologue about mortality, the novel proper sets itself against this past summer’s historic Brexit vote. . . . Smith deftly juxtaposes her protagonists’ physical and emotional states in the past and present, tracking Elisabeth’s path from precocity to disillusionment. Eschewing traditional structure and punctuation, the novel charts a wild course through uncertain terrain, an approach that excites and surprises in equal turn. . . . Smith, always one to take risks, sees all of them pay off yet again.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“At the heart of Man Booker Prize nominee Smith’s new novel is the charming friendship between a lonely girl and a kind older man who offers her a world of culture. This novel of big ideas and small pleasures is enthusiastically recommended.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“A girl’s friendship with an older neighbor stands at the center of this multifaceted meditation on aging, art, love, and affection. . . . Smith has a gift for drawing a reader into whatever world she creates. . . . [Autumn is] compelling in its emotional and historical freight, its humor, and keen sense of creativity and loss.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“It is undoubtedly Smith at her best. . . . This book sets Smith’s complex creative character in stone: puckish yet elegant, angry but comforting.  Long may she Remain that way.”
Melissa Katsoulis, The Times (London)

“Like Smith’s previous novels, Autumn is an ambitious, multi-layered creation. . . . Smith is convincing as both a 12-year-old girl proud of her new rollerblades and a man living in a care home. . . . The story is rooted in autumn, and Smith writes lyrically about the changing seasons. . . . An energising and uplifting story.”
—Susannah Butter, Evening Standard

“Smith writes in a liltingly singsong prose that fizzes with exuberant punning and wordplay. . . . One stylistic device in particular stands out: a propensity for lengthy monologues, almost soliloquies, in which a certain word or phrase is repeated over and over, producing a rhetorically powerful rhythmic effect. . . . [Autumn’s] patchwork aesthetic speaks to something authentic in the way many of us will have experienced not only the political crisis of the past few months—as consumers of online news media—but much else besides, as readers, watchers and listeners in the digital ecology. That sense of fragmentation and intertextual riffing, presaged in Boty’s collages, is writ large in the remix dynamic of online cultural consumption, and it is this, as much as Smith’s energetic, vibrant prose and topical setting, that makes it feel so compellingly contemporary. Nevertheless Autumn will primarily draw attention, and rightly so, for its appeal to conscience and common humanity—intergenerational, interracial, international—in these deeply worrying times.”
—Houman Barekat, The Irish Times

“Proving Smith’s ambition and scope, Autumn is the first in a four-part series (the other titles will be Spring, Winter and Summer). . . . If the first instalment is anything to go by, the series is destined to become a canon classic. . . . This is the first novel, to my mind, to significantly address post-Brexit Britain. . . . That Smith has done so with such impressive sleight of hand, and with such expediency, is incredible. . . . As Daniel notes: ‘Time travel is real. We do it all the time, moment to moment.’ This, ultimately, is the backbone of the book. As concepts go, it’s simple, but a brilliant and breathtaking one.”
—Tanya Sweeney, The Irish Independent

“Uplifting and satirical. . . . A beautiful meditation. . . . The relationships and people . . . 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. . . . 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.”
—Ben East, The National (Arts & Life)

“Already acknowledged as one of the most inventive novelists writing in Britain today, with her new novel, Autumn, Ali Smith also proves herself to be one of the country’s foremost chroniclers, her finger firmly on the social and political pulse. . . . In Autumn time is something the warp and weft of which can be bent on a whim: past, present and strange timeless limbos exist alongside each other. . . . One of the delights of her work is its down to earth realism. . . . Autumn displays much of the mischievous innovation that defines Smith’s writing.”
—Lucy Scholes, The Independent (London)

“A free-floating meditation on time, memory and the transience of existence, in which ideas swirl round like fallen leaves. . . . As always Smith is witty. . . . Laugh-out-loud funny. . . . [But] also dense with allusions and insights into our current malaise. . . . Teem[s] with interesting language, images and ideas.”
—Dana Garavelli, The National

“Autumn is a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities; the ‘endless sad fragility’ of mortal lives.”
—Joanna Kavenna, The Guardian (London)

“Impressionistic and intricate. . . . The first serious Brexit novel. . . . Smith is brilliant on what the referendum has done to Britain, the fissures that have appeared in the semi-rural landscape of her mother’s East Anglian home. . . . At once sardonic and heartbreaking. . . . I can think of few writers—Virginia Woolf is one, James Salter another—so able to propel a narrative through voice alone. Smith’s use of free indirect discourse, the close-third-person style that puts the reader at once within and without her characters, means that Autumn, for all its braininess, is never difficult. Smith feels like a genial guide leading us through a torrent of ideas—about art, history, literature, feminism, memory. This is a novel that works by accretion, appearing light and playful, surface-dwelling, while all the time enacting profound changes on the reader’s heart. In a country apparently divided against itself, a writer such as Smith, who makes you feel known, who seems to speak to your own private weirdnesses, is more valuable than a whole parliament of politicians.”
—Alex Preston, Financial Times

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