You have to hand it to Ali Smith! Her new title Autumn is Part One of a seasonal quartet. The flyleaf tells you that it is a “meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are…” Who writes this stuff and did they even complete the whole book?
This is a jumble of thoughts and ideas, loosely hung around the backstory of two people, Elisabeth Demand and Daniel Gluck, neighbours when Elisabeth was a young girl. Daniel, by the time the novel is being set down, is in a care home aged 100 and Elisabeth, pretending to be his granddaughter visits regularly.
In an earlier part of his life, Daniel has known and loved Pauline Boty [a real British female pop artist of the 1960/70s]. He is a song writer, with one good song to his credit.
The book ranges over a Britain that is reeling from the results of the Referendum of 2016 backwards through the Profumo Scandal, but largely from Christine Keeler’s perspective, or rather how Pauline Boty has presented her in a picture entitled Scandal 63; struggles of identity – Elisabeth is trying to get her passport renewed and a Hannah Gluck, who gets picked up in Nice with a false passport in the 1930s, but manages to walk free and of bodies: men, women and children being washed up on a Mediterranean beach in 2015/6; it is also about perception.
Daniel has described Pauline’s pictures to Elisabeth when she was a young child, but they have all been lost and in any case, he does not ever tell her who they are by, much later as an art student she realises what it was he was telling her.
There is no doubt that this is a meditation of sorts, there is a lot of reported thinking and dreaming, and some philosophical questioning of truth, lies, presentation and reality.
But much of it is random thoughts laid on the page a bit like a collage (which is what Pauline Boty is famous for), scraps of thoughts and materials which may or may not mean anything in the scheme of things. Does this make it “a novel” or just “novel”?