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September 18, 2017

The plot of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn is largely irrelevant; what you’ll read it for, if you read it, are the moments of connection and recognition, some as clear and bright and head-turningly beautiful as the first red leaves against a blue-sky backdrop. I’ve been seeing those this week, here and there on sugar maples; at the end of the week the autumnal equinox will be upon us.

My first moment of connection, reading Autumn, was with the main character’s, Elisabeth’s, mother, who rattles off this litany:
“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity
I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.
I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.”

Elisabeth’s lifelong friend Daniel is the one who all the characters know is in the autumn of his life, but her interactions and memories of him drive what plot there is towards the inevitable conclusion. Visiting Daniel after the Brexit vote in his British “care home” (we call these “nursing homes” in the US), Elisabeth
“wonders what’s going to happen to all the care assistants. She realizes she hasn’t so far encountered a single care assistant here who isn’t from somewhere else in the world. That morning on the radio she’d heard a spokesperson say, but it’s not just that we’ve been rhetorically and practically encouraging the opposite of integration for immigrants to this country. It’s that we’ve been rhetorically and practically encouraging ourselves not to integrate. We’ve been doing this as a matter of self-policing since Thatcher taught us to be selfish and not just to think but to believe that there’s no such thing as society.
Then the other spokesperson in the dialogue said, well, you would say that. Get over it. Grow up. Your time’s over, Democracy. You lost.
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 becoming dialogue.
It is the end of dialogue.
She tries to think when exactly it changed, how long it’s been like this without her noticing.”

It’s melancholy to see the extent to which Elisabeth feels that she’s living in an autumnal era, more than it is to see it for her mother and Daniel. For them, nearing the end of their lives, it seems more appropriate, even if painful:
“Her mother, who’d seen it several times already herself, was in tears from the start, from when the man doing the voiceover mentioned the words carved on the mace.
Wisdom. Justice. Compassion. Integrity.
It’s the word integrity, her mother said. It does it every time. I hear it and I see in my head the faces of the liars.
Elisabeth grimaced. Every morning she wakes up feeling cheated of something. The next thing she thinks about, when she does, is the number of people waking up feeling cheated of something all over the country, no matter what they voted.”

The work that the circumstances of her upbringing, her mother’s convictions and her friend Daniel’s guidance have led Elisabeth to do is investigating an artist’s attempt to “imagine if time could be kind of suspended, rather than us be suspended in it.” And this is what happens to the characters, and to the reader of this novel, while immersed in it.

At the end, however, when we become aware of the passing of time, it’s no longer early autumn, no longer the time described by Keats at the beginning of his poem “To Autumn,” when nature is still working
“To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…”

At the end of the novel it feels like we wake up to discover that it is the end of autumn. “The trees are revealing their structures.” It is later than we thought, and how did we get here, British and American? Is it too late to plant anything hardy that might take root in a future season?


11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 18, 2017 4:14 am

    This is the next book on the pile, Jeanne and after reading this and while still getting over what my doctor euphemistically calls ‘a bad reaction’ to some antibiotics I’m not certain I’m strong enough for it. I have a couple of good murder stories waiting as well, ironically, it sounds as though they will make easier reading.

    • September 18, 2017 7:59 am

      Really I didn’t find this one hard to read. It’s beautiful, about making your understanding of something you love flare bright before the end of the time you have on earth.

  2. September 20, 2017 11:13 am

    Sounds like something I would like to read. Great review.

    • September 25, 2017 5:17 pm

      I do think you would like it. It’s great when you’re in a thoughtful mood already.

  3. September 20, 2017 4:36 pm

    Other bloggers have featured that quotation you shared at the beginning, and every time I read it I find it resonates. I think we are ALL SO TIRED.

    • September 25, 2017 5:18 pm

      Yes. It’s not really encouraging, but in a misery-loves-company way I like hearing that people in Britain are also tired.

  4. September 25, 2017 4:35 pm

    I really enjoyed this book and I enjoyed your review too! Looks like we will get the next book, Winter in January 🙂

    • September 25, 2017 5:20 pm

      Good timing! I actually read this one for the first time last spring, but kind of saved up writing about it, which meant I had to go through it again and think about what I wanted to say (ending up quoting more than saying anything, which is what I often do when something is well written).


  1. Winter | Necromancy Never Pays
  2. Spring | Necromancy Never Pays
  3. Summer | Necromancy Never Pays

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