In her new novel, the always intriguing Ali Smith portrays an odd friendship between a centenarian and the neighbor girl—now a young woman—he cared for in her childhood. Smith blends conventional realist narrative with passages that read almost like prose poems to create an elegiac story that’s decidedly more than the sum of its parts.
Daniel Gluck, once a songwriter and former “unofficial babysitter” to Elisabeth Demand, awaits his death in a nursing home. In the present, we penetrate Daniel’s consciousness to share some of his hallucinatory dreams, and through flashbacks, Smith gently reveals how this kindly, unassuming man served as a mentor to his young charge. Now in her early 30s, Elisabeth is a junior lecturer in art history, struggling with her doctoral thesis.
Drawing back from this intimate tableau, Autumn also offers a piercing view of an unsettled England in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote. “All across the country,” Smith writes in a terse chapter whose every sentence begins with those words, “there was misery and rejoicing,” echoing the opening passage of A Tale of Two Cities, quoted by Elisabeth in her bedside reading to Daniel.
Much of this novel’s pleasure flows from Smith’s supple prose. She indulges in word play with an almost Joycean zest (offering an homage to him in a brief allusion to his iconic Dubliners story, “The Dead”). Autumn is the first installment of a projected quartet of “seasonal” novels. Impressionistic in character, it’s a book to be read less for any conventional plot than for its skill in stimulating a reflective mood.