“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” A beginning many people can relate to right now.
The twist off of Dickens’ famous lines from his strife-torn novel is the opener of Ali Smith’s 2016 “Autumn.” Set in an England straight off the results of Brexit, the work is an exploration of divisions. Floating throughout the work are snippets of fevered arguments on the BBC, neighbors posting inflammatory signs in their yards, people rejoicing and people who feel dejected.
At the center of “Autumn” is Elizabeth Demand, and she is demanding a passport. We’re never told where she is going or how long she’ll be there. But Demand (born in 1984, another literary allusion) encounters Orwellian but comical red tape that delays her application at the post office.
While she awaits the process of getting her passport, she spends one day a week reading to her vegetative former neighbor, 101-year-old Daniel Gluck.
“Autumn” is also about connections, and Elizabeth has a deep and abiding one with Daniel, whom she first met when she was 8 years old. Throughout the book, flashbacks show Daniel dispensing Socratic wisdom to her when they are neighbors. He shares his love of art and language with the girl and encourages the precocious youth to make words out of images and images out of words. These conversations in turn kindle what would eventually become Elizabeth’s career, a lecturer in art history.
This relationship is annoying and mildly concerning to Elizabeth’s mother. There’s a humorous frost between them throughout the novel, and the two remain perplexed by one another. But as Elizabeth grows older, she begins to appreciate and respect the complexity of her mother.
The parts of “Autumn” that dwell on British pop art and Elizabeth’s scholarship on Pauline Boty are tough going because they will probably be lost on most people outside of the U.K., but these sections are salvaged by reflections on women’s empowerment and aspects of sexism in society.
The novel blames the Brexit vote results on anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.K. Daniel, who has spent nearly his entire adult life in England, turns out to be an immigrant, a refugee who sought and found a better life. “Autumn” tells us there are some parts of existence one can’t escape and those things would be fruitless to ignore, just like the seasons.