‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith – Not the Post-Brexit Novel

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith   (2016)  –  260 pages


‘Autumn’ has been called the first Post-Brexit novel, and there are a few bits about the anti-refugee hysteria that has taken over England, but it is not the Post-Brexit novel.

“Rule Britannia, a bunch of thugs had been sing-shouting in the street at the weekend past Elisabeth’s flat.  Britannia rules the waves.  First we’ll get the Poles.  And then we’ll get the Muslims.  Then we’ll get the gyppos, then the gays.  You lot are on the run, and we’re coming after you, a right-wing spokesman shouted at a female MP on a panel on Radio 4 earlier that same Saturday.  The chairman of the panel didn’t berate, or comment on, or even acknowledge the threat the man had just made.  Instead he gave the last word to the Tory MP on the panel, who used what was the final thirty seconds of the programme to talk about the real and disturbing cause for concern – not the blatant threat that was just made on the air by one person to another – of immigration.” 

9780241207017These lines echo the spiteful Trump phenomenon in the United States as well as apply to Brexit.  However a few good lines scattered through ‘Autumn’ do not a Post-Brexit novel make.  We must wait for a novel that more intensely deals with the Right-Wing racial hatred and viciousness sweeping across both England and the United States now.

In many ways ‘Autumn’ is similar to Smith’s previous novel ‘How to Be Both’.  Both concern a young girl/woman and an old, old man.  In ‘Autumn’ the girl/woman is Elisabeth Demand, now a 32 year-old university contract lecturer, and the old man, as opposed to a 15th century Renaissance artist, is now 101 year-old Daniel Gluck, a former neighbor who is on his death bed.  There is a profound innocence between the old man Daniel and the young Elisabeth.

For me, ‘Autumn’ is just not as sharply written as ‘How To Be Both’.  It has some of the same themes as ‘How To Be Both’, but these themes do not cohere so well.  The story is more scattered and less clever and engaging.

One particular quality which I do like a lot in the fiction of Ali Smith is how she can make a facet of art history come alive.  In ‘How To Be Both’, it was the life and times of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa.  In ‘Autumn’, the artist who Smith spotlights is 1960s English pop artist Pauline Boty.  Like so many stories, Boty’s story is exquisitely sad only to emerge triumphant in the end.

And I’ve got some final advice for the British people.  Don’t sound too vicious or stupid in your racist rants or you will wind up sounding like Donald Trump.


Grade:    B



8 responses to this post.

  1. Your post makes me wonder yet again, how have we come to this….



  2. not sure if i want to read this or not – i did enjoy How to be Both but now I see your comment that this isn’t as coherent, I’m starting to have second thoughts



    • HinBookerTalk,
      I found ‘Autumn’ to be quite good, just not extraordinary like ‘How to be Both’. That’s the danger for an author of writing a great book. 🙂



  3. Interestingly, what I’m seeing so far is that the reaction to this on the blogosphere is distinctly more lukewarm than in the press. That’s despite the reaction to How to be Both having been generally very positive.

    I suspect I’ll pass. How to be Both just sounds much better. As you say though, that’s the danger of writing a great book…



    • Hi Max,
      ‘Autumn’ just did not do it for me compared to ‘How to be Both’. The major press tends to wax ecstatic every time a major author publishes a novel. As another example, I am quite lukewarm on ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders even though the major press treated it as the greatest ever.
      I notice ‘Autumn’ did not get nominated for the Bailey Award longlist…



      • Yes, it’s a huge flaw of newspaper reviews. There’s often a sense that the reviewer knows what they’re supposed to write. The new book by the big author gets a glowing review unless it’s an absolute stinker. To do otherwise risks being the only reviewer to write less than a glowing review, which would be rather brave.

        To be fair, I’d probably have been more hesitant with say my negative review of Heart of Darkness if it were being published in the Guardian. On my blog it’s a hobby and the worst I get is people arguing that I’m wrong or have misunderstood it which is fair enough (and which I quite enjoy since it’s an interesting debate). In the Guardian I’d have commissioning editors wondering if they could trust me next time and quite likely a social media backlash. I’d still criticise the book, but more circumspectly I imagine.

        Often with the press you need to let the dust settle before the genuine appraisal emerges.



        • Hi Max,
          That was a bold step to write a negative review of that old classic ‘Heart of Darkness’. I do remember reading ‘Heart of Darkness’ and thinking it was all rather indistinct. Fortunately I did not have a blog at that time so I wasn’t faced with the dilemma of reviewing it. I doubt even the Guardian, which is one of the best, would accept a negative review of ‘Heart of Darkness’ unless it was written by a big-name author.
          The last terribly negative review I wrote was on January 22 for ‘Nicotine’ by Nell Zink, a novel I truly hated, especially since it had received several glowing reviews in the major press. I believe I itemized quite thoroughly what I hated about that book.



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