The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2017: ‘Autumn’

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Before reading Autumn, the brief synopses I found on Google described the novel as a political one. Whilst this is true, it still manages to execute a colourful, disjointed mediation on time and existence. Ali Smith hones in on these lofty ideas by detailing the thoughts of Elisabeth Demand whose life is displayed for us in a series of memory-like disjointed encounters that drift in and out of the present. Her life is punctuated not only by political events, but snippets of conversation at various ages with her close friend and neighbour, Daniel Gluck. Whilst the premise sounds very average, it is the care given to ordinary life which grounds Smith’s narrative. Smith contrasts lengthy dreamscapes of memory with the stark and mundane realities of the Post Office. As Elisabeth makes daily visits to her comatose friend, Smith reminds us that in life there are no ‘given’s. As Daniel drifts in and out of consciousness we are reminded of the precarious state of the present: we live from breath to breath.

One of the most striking features of the book is her simultaneous view of public and private, the universal and the personal. Authors often tend to be one or the other, but her presentation of the public sentiments following Brexit is measured by personal memories and sharp dialogue. These transitions and Smith’s poetic style are disorientating at times. The blurring of perspectives at the beginning takes a little adjustment, but is essential to her core message: the way reality is experienced is both fleeting and changeable.

Her concern with time is occasionally blatant and unsubtle: one character demonstrates the notion that ‘time flies’ by throwing his watch into a canal.  The disorientating arrangement of chronological time further affirms her message. The book manages to encompass several types of autumn: seasonal, political, and that of life itself. Autumn stays strikingly present, especially in capturing the feeling of mourning felt by many remain-ers. That being said, there seems to be a consolation in the seasonal promise that spring will come (eventually).

Autumn is an unusual read, and difficult at times, but certainly worth it for how well Smith treats the novel’s heavy subjects.

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