This is a troublesome book.
Ultimately, I enjoyed it, I was moved by it, I came to see its excellence.
But it was a bumpy road getting there.
I’ve been reading the Booker Long List blind for the most part. I got as many of the books as my local library allows without reading anything about them, or much about them. (There are a few you cannot escape.) So I have very little to no idea what’s going to happen when I start the first page.
Autumn by Ali Smith took quite a while to figure out. Just what is going on? Where are we? Who is telling this story? Are we in the present or in the past? Is some forgotten crime going to be revealed? Should we be afraid of this man?
On the surface at least, Autumn compares to Elizabeth’s Strout’s wonderful novel My Name is Lucy Barton. In both a woman, a writer of sorts, is visited by an aging “parent.” While the two confront their shared history the reader learns it all through flashbacks, memories, sometimes faulty sometimes reliable.
In Autumn the main character is an art scholar working on the career of Pauline Boty, the only woman in the forefront of the British pop-art movement of the 1960’s. When her mother alerts her that an old friend, Daniel Gluck, is in the hospital, possibly dying at age 101, she goes to him. Though he is in a deep, the nurses say final, sleep, she spends as much time beside him as she can, reading to him, talking to him, asking him questions, mainly about Pauline Boty and his connection to her.
The two are not related. He was a next-door neighbor she interviewed for a grade school assignment. Curious about him, she kept visiting in spite of her mother’s warnings. Over the years, he became something of a mentor to her.
The book becomes much more of a page turner than I’m describing here, though it was hard to get to that point. There’s a lot of writerly experimentation going on. We get scenes from their shared past that seem to reveal important things only to be told neither one remembers the events describe. There are imagined conversations that feel as important as real ones. This all works very well. I was saddened to read that neither remembered the events described. It made me wonder about how many important moments may have escaped my own memory.
There’s a sexual tension in the book both because we’ve all come to suspect intergenerational relationships in fiction and because the author keeps referring to the famous sex Scandal of 1960’s Britain when the government was rocked by a young woman’s affair with a much older man. I kept worrying about this until nearly the end of the book.
The ending itself was surprisingly uplifting. I walked away from the book feeling pretty good about things in general and very good about Ali Smith’s book Autumn.
And kind of glad I was able to read it without knowing anything about it. It was worth the work.