James Gault reviews AUTUMN by Ali Smith
Do you get annoyed with uninformative one-word accolades splattered over book covers? The paperback version of this book is so full of them that there’s hardly room left for the title. If some anonymous reviewer from the FT writes ‘Brilliant’, or an unnamed Scotsman reviewer identifies a book as ‘Glorious’, does that mean that I, or you, will automatically like it? I don’t think so.
So let me tell you about this novel: what I loved, what I liked, what moved me and what annoyed me. Hopefully you’ll get to know enough about me and the novel to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the investment of the cover price and your time.
For me, this book is defined by the author’s love of words and her imagery. She indulges in little asides, just playing with sounds and meaning, and she builds vivid word pictures, often using images from nature. You’ll also find some rather apposite political comment, which perhaps non-British readers may find puzzling. Some of you may find all this distracts attention from the plot, but this is a book which doesn’t have much of a story.
I didn’t mind too much that there was no complex intrigue and mystery to keep my attention. The odd thing is that it has just the right amount of story: the relationship between a young girl and an elderly neighbour and the vigil, twenty years or so later, when the old man is dying. That’s about it for the plot: just enough to give a sense of direction and purpose to the book. But the beauty of the writing transcends what is a very basic tale.
The other aspect that struck me about this novel was not just the brilliant and convincing characterisations, but the insightful way the writer explores the relationships between the characters. Old Daniel disseminating the wisdom of age to the girl narrator, her wonder at how he forces her to discover things about life that she would never otherwise have noticed! The air of secrecy that envelopes their association; that way the girl shuts her mother out from it! How she decides, as an adult, that what she had with Daniel is the real true form of love. If you believe like me that good writing should make you see the world in a new way, this book is for you.
The illuminating look at inter-relationships isn’t restricted to the main two characters. We also get a deeper understanding of how the narrator interacts with her mother, and then with her tutor at university, and even with the subject of her history of art thesis.
So what we have here is scintillating writing about how we relate to one another. I loved it.