Man Booker Prize 2017 long-list reading guide: Ali Smith's Autumn, reviewed

Editor's note: Up to 13 September, when the Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing all 13 books on the longlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders, and which ones you should read. 

Ali Smith plays with time. Plays with how we understand it, how we live through it. Autumn is of now, it is of the past. Of youth, and of getting old. A magnificent study of the opposites, converging over sharp realities and fever dreams.

Smith’s latest is first of a four-part series based on seasons (Winter will be published next). Like her last book, How to Be Both (her third to be nominated for a Man Booker Prize), which told two stories set in different places and time but written in manner so that they could be read in any order, Autumn is a study of how a story can be told as the narrative jumps through time and space.

 Man Booker Prize 2017 long-list reading guide: Ali Smiths Autumn, reviewed

Autumn by Ali Smith is on the Man Booker Prize 2017 long-list. Images courtesy Penguin Randomhouse

The book follows 32-year-old art history lecturer Elisabeth Demand living in a post-Brexit England, a country bitterly divided and not entirely comfortable with the historical changes it plans to go through. Living with "no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do" and "still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago", Elisabeth's days revolve around tediously getting her passport renewed, dealing with hospital authorities and her mother, whom she had moved in with recently to be with her dying friend.

But if Elisabeth is the gritty (and often absurd) realism, her dying friend, 101-year old former songwriter Daniel Gluck, is the surreal dream. Daniel, close to his death, dreams. Dreams of his youth, lost love and childhood. Dreams of death, his sister in Germany and being a tree.

Their paths first cross when Elisabeth is eight. Daniel is her new neighbour, an “old queen” with “arty art” in his house, as her mother puts it (“Daniel’s not gay. He’s European,” replies Elisabeth). An extraordinary relationship is formed on long walks as Danial introduces her to art and critical thinking and caters to her curious spirit. “It isn’t that kind of relationship,” Elisabeth says at one point, “It isn’t even the least bit physical. It never has been. But it’s love. I can’t pretend it isn’t.”

Their interactions at different points in their lives, told by Smith in series of flashbacks, forms the backbone and the most heartfelt reads of the book. The chapters themselves are a kaleidoscope of dreams and reality, past and present, fact and fiction; weaved together with lightness and simplicity, revealing the mastery of prose the author commands.

It is astonishing how Smith has been able to produce such a beautiful narrative so soon after the EU referendum, and how unsettling it often it feels while reading the book. The bleak atmosphere — someone painting GO HOME on an immigrant's house, an electric wire fence going up around a property, people not talking to each other — is right out of your morning newspaper.

Smith disguises her larger commentary on the contemporary with subtlety. A young Elisabeth is introduced to the nature of lies, deception and apathy through games and art. Her mother argues about what passes for news. At one point, the current state of affairs is compared to Nazism, but yet again, the reference is blended artfully in the narrative.

Throughout the book, Smith cites other works of literature like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, William Shakespeare's The Tempest and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, borrowing their themes and ambitions as she dissects the history and future of a country. Because, for Smith, history has a cyclic nature. Things happen, people forget, same things happen again, and so on.

But Autumn never loses itself to melancholy. Smith's characters are rebels. Elisabeth rebels against her mother as a youth, and time after time, against the authority figures. In one of the flashbacks, Daniel's sister rebels against her arrest in 1943 France. Pauline Boty, a reoccurring figure in the story (and a real artist), rebels against the conventions of her time. Later, passing the GO HOME graffiti again, Elisabeth sees someone has painted WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU right underneath it.

Danial's dreams also provide a counterbalance to England's grinding socio-political landscape of the time. His Charlie Kaufman-esque escapes in his mind have existential and philosophical quality. Scenes and thoughts blend ceaselessly as he revisits people and places of his incredible life.

man booker prize 2017 longlist

There are, however, points in Smith's novel where things feel a bit out of place or hard to grasp. The references to Christine Keeler's story might feel a bit foreign to people unfamiliar with the British politics of the 1960s and a chapter dedicated entirely to the Boty pulls you out of the book.

As you settle into the book, Smith's writing works like a spell, swaying through time, narratives and landscapes till the borders begin to blur, nations and individuals collapse into each other. But even among all this, Smith manages to elevate the kinship between Elisabeth and Daniel above all. And with it, the many souls in these trying times.

When they first meet, Danial tells Elisabeth that he was pleased to meet her, finally.

"How do you mean, finally?" Elisabeth asks.

"The lifelong friends," he says. “We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.”

Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 10:25:46 IST