Autumn by Ali Smith is a novel that revolves around the relationship between a young woman named Elisabeth and her unconventional neighbor, Daniel. Set in the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016, the book explores themes of time and nostalgia through the unlikely friendship between Elisabeth, a part-time university lecturer, and Daniel, an elderly man who used to be her next door neighbor when she was a child.
|Publication Date||February 7, 2017|
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The main storyline follows Elisabeth as she reunites with Daniel, now 101 years old and living in a care home. Elisabeth had fond memories of Daniel from her childhood, and she feels compelled to visit him and revive their friendship. The novel unfolds through a series of conversations and recollections between Elisabeth and Daniel, as they reflect on the past and discuss art, literature, politics and the state of the world.
Through a non-linear narrative, the reader learns about key moments from Daniel and Elisabeth’s pasts, including Daniel’s experiences as a prisoner of war and Elisabeth’s childhood memories of her unusual but loving neighbor. Their present day interactions are sometimes disjointed due to Daniel’s advancing age, but the genuine affection between them still shines through.
I found this book to be a poignant meditation on time, memory, art and connection. The relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel forms the emotional core of the novel, and their interactions are funny, philosophical and moving. I appreciated the unlikely nature of their friendship – a thirty-something academic and a centenarian with a lifetime of experiences between them.
The book’s fragmented structure, shifting between past and present, evokes the transient nature of life. The motif of the changing seasons echoes this theme, with Autumn representing the cycles of renewal and decay. Smith’s prose is lyrical and vivid in depicting these temporal shifts.
As a character, Daniel really leapt off the page for me. He came across as eccentric, insightful, and deeply human. His advanced age and wavering lucidity only seemed to amplify his wit and wisdom. Elisabeth provided an endearing counterpoint – much younger, but struggling with a sense of aimlessness that many Millennials like her can relate to.
The novel also succeeds in capturing the social and political turmoil of 2016. Daniel and Elisabeth’s frequent references to pop culture, current events, social media and the arts created an immersive time capsule. The Brexit vote looms large over the story, and Smith deftly explores its implications through the characters’ debates and discussions.
In the end, I found Autumn to be a poignant, wise and sensitive exploration of intergenerational friendship. Ali Smith has an incredible gift for capturing the ephemeral beauty of the everyday. I’d recommend this novel to anyone, but I think it will particularly resonate with those who have ever reflected on the passing of time, the value of connection across differences, and the complexities of this era we live in.