‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’ I love a good opening line. And how true, describing 2016, the year of chaos and upheaval. Amidst the general division and unrest the United Kingdom is descending into, Elisabeth – with an s – is pretending to be Daniel Gluck’s granddaughter to be allowed at his bedside in the Maltings care facility. It is true that she is closest to the hundred-and-one year old who is mostly sleeping now, though they are not related. He was her neighbour growing up and looked after her when her mother couldn’t. Mostly, they went on walks, told each other stories. Daniel enjoys the girl’s quick wit and helps her keep her mind open and her imagination growing. She grows up, they grow apart, as her life leads her to different places, but no one can ever take over the special place in her heart that that Daniel inhabits. We learn about their histories, individual and together. Art, love and politics are woven into a beautiful story of grief and hope.
Like golden leaves in the autumn, the pieces of this story fall together slowly, one by one, sometimes more in a sudden gust of wind. So it takes a little while before the ground is covered and the story takes shape, but when it does it is a beautiful, heart-warming scene. In this first instalment of her seasonal quartet, Ali Smith plays with time and how we perceive it, jumping from past to future, zooming in and out between the personal and the political, making the reader see how it is all connected, all relative. Her prose is often lyrical and especially highlighted by the metatextual aspects of the narration. She wants us to remember that we are reading words on a page, and the role words on pages play in the creation and storing of memories. Her joy of using language is obvious throughout the novel and behind much of what makes this book such a pleasure to read.
Herbal and verbal, Daniel said. Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth round them up, and when it does up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting to come up.
Smith uses small, ordinary scenes to great – often humorous effect – effect that show us some of the absurdities of how we do society. Elisabeth’s frustrating but hilarious experience of trying to get a new passport is just one great example of that. Smith strikes a wonderful balance between telling a lot and a little, between creating the tense atmosphere of post-referendum England and moments of light-heartedness. Autumn tells a moving story, in a gentle voice and I cannot wait to read Winter in winter.
Here’s an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening, writing itself right now with no knowledge of where or how it’ll end.