Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Autumn by Ali Smith

AutumnAutumn by Ali Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars  View all my reviews
Read Autumn the way you would a collage painting: What’s the big picture? What’s in the details? How does the story all hang together, and what do we imagine happens next? Autumn is a painting made up of words, as Daniel shows Elisabeth when he asks her to close her eyes and imagine as he describes a collage by Pauline Boty. Elisabeth is able to recognize the painting when she actually sees it.

Sixties icons play a central role in the novel: Pauline Boty, as well as Christine Keeler (who was the subject of one of Boty’s paintings), serve as totems for us to examine our present time. In an article by Ali Smith herself, she describes the work of Pauline Boty as dropping “us head-first into a dream, and when the dream turns into a nightmare she slaps it in the face, wakes up into what’s now a multilayered narrative of dreamworld and mundanity” [1]. Quite often in the book, when things seem to be quite grim for Elisabeth (and the world), Daniel shows how art can lift you out of the darkness.

Ali Smith, writer, signing books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. By Tim Duncan. From Wikimedia Commons.

Christine Keeler’s role seems to guide us to the question, “What happens culturally when something is built on a lie?” [2]. The fallout from Brexit is definitely in the book, from the comically absurd task of applying for a passport, the fences around common land, and the spray painting of “GO HOME” on people’s houses. Ali Smith uses fiction and painting to remind us “to read the world as a construct. And if you can read the world as a construct, you can ask questions of the construct and you can suggest ways to change the construct. You understand that things aren’t fixed” [2].

Initially, I thought about giving the book a four star rating because of its lack of resolution. But you have to stare at the novel, dissect it, make connections,  and do research. By God, did Smith do a lot of research - which is not immediately apparent, especially considering the speed with which this book was written and published: “Maybe an accelerated news cycle requires accelerated art” [2].

We live in the era that comes after Rule Britannia (political empire) and Cool Britannia (the resurgence of the cultural empire). Does Europe and the rest of the world ask what happens Post-Britannia? What has the empire stood for, for us? Smith looks to the art of Pauline Boty and her final testament: A “message of undying hope, of solidarity with the oppressed, and of certainty about the future that gave all us us more than courage. Determination” [1].

Works considered while writing this wee review:
[1] Ali Smith on the prime of pop artist Pauline Boty

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