'Autumn' by Ali Smith
If journalism is the first draft of history, then Ali Smith’s Autumn is the second. Her novel, set in Britain in the months following the June 2016 Brexit vote, was published just three months after the vote in October of the same year. On the surface, it’s the story of an old, old man and his thirty-something platonic lover – a simple story of deep mutual affection between two people. But Smith writes with a “step-back motion” such that the tide of the story is constantly flowing backwards, and in pulling us back she creates a vantage point from which to see the present. While the current-day story moves in increments, we learn about old TV shows and historical migration and Britain’s first female Pop Art painter. Smith is obviously appalled at the Brexit vote, and at one point in Autumn has the narrator waiting for a cab at the airport when two Spanish travellers are heckled by locals. “Is this what shame feels like?”, she writes.
Smith makes no claims of impartiality (“Fiction is political. Fiction can’t not be,” Smith told the Paris Review recently), but her book is never propaganda. Autumn is an elegant, playful story about true emotions, and reading it feels like washing soot out of your mouth. Today’s politics is a battleground of abstract stories (the story of nostalgia; the story of dispossession; the story of external enemies) but Ali Smith’s Brexit novel reminds us, really reminds us, of the richness of human-to-human connection.
There’s a beautiful quote that gives you the heart of Smith’s book, and, though long, it’s worth reproducing:
“Hope is exactly that, that’s all it is, a matter of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they are and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair … and we have to know we’re equally capable of both, and to be ready to be above and beyond the foul even when we’re up to our eyes in it.”