Ali Smith has the most remarkable ability to write in an easy, readable style – a style that is full of joy when dealing with the most difficult issues, like death and prejudice, and even Brexit.
Autumn covers all of this in Smith’s subtle and often surprising way, her story centring in two people – the nearly 100 year old Daniel and the thirty-something Elisabeth.
Through long flashbacks that constitute half of the book, we get the story of how they were neighbours when Elisabeth was in her early teens, and the two became good friends, spending long chunks of time together talking about ideas and books and imagination and art. Daniel gives her an education whilst also being her friend.
Elisabeth loves him, platonically, and the contemporary part of the book sees her visiting him in his old people’s home, often as he sleeps in his chair, something her Mum finds slightly inexplicable and the carers can only think of as a familial relationship.
And it’s their relationship which is most interesting in this book. It breaks the boundaries of what we think a relationship between an old man and a young girl can be in our (often understandably) cynical times, hinting that connection and love across great divides of era and age are possible.
The other bit of the story is Elisabeth’s research into a forgotten female Brit Pop artist, Pauline Boty. She investigated the artist at university, after being put onto her by Daniel, finding a woman that transgressed boundaries and borders like Daniel and Elisabeth do.
Like many of Smith’s books, it’s the characters and the style that pull you along, not the plot, and it’s only at the end, after a little reflection, that it all hangs together, making an impression in a way many novels don’t.