“It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.”
So begins the first of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, Autumn.
It’s a riff off Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and she returns to it repeatedly in this extended part prose part, almost, poem.
It’s a study on time and it’s an abstract novel in its form and this can be (at times – no pun) quite tedious as she wordsmiths and wordplays her way through pages and even short chapters at a time, but if you can grimace your way through what I imagine most critics will see as the book’s highlights you find yourself immersed in a rather captivating platonic love story about a dying 100 year old single (gay?) man -a poet and songwriter – and a young, precocious English lecturer who has secretly loved him (her childhood neighbour) since she was 8 years old (and he was 75).
Daniel is dying. Elisabeth (sic) is visiting him in his care home and reflecting on their deeply respectful on-off life together, against a backdrop of a dysfunctional mother and an estranged (or dead) father.
Much has been made of this being the first post-Brexit novel but really it’s really a contextual backdrop give that the timeshiftimg story concludes in Autumn 2016 in the wake of Britain’s extremely divisive and frankly ridiculous decision at the polls.
It’s clear Smith shares my political stance and uses her Scottishness to highlight the differences between our green and pleasant land and the carbuncle that is Englandshire.
A feminist strand that runs through it is Smith’s clear admiration for the World’s only (deceased) female Pop Artist, beauty and actor, Pauline Boty, and, in particular, her painting of Christine Keeler: Scandal 63. An artist of the time but out of her time. Ignored but found, forgotten, found, forgotten, found, forgotten in the years after her unheralded heyday.
At times I found this a challenging read but remarkably it’s also a page turner (it really does race along in very short chapters) and, in that respect that makes it quite an achievement. I will certainly continue to read the quartet as it emerges.