Time, Transience and Transcendence – A Review of Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn is the season of transience, leaves turning yellow and auburn before falling, a passage to the cold, harsh winter. Autumn, the novel by Ali Smith, is an exploration of time and its transience, the changing of the seasons and our worlds with it. It is about the autumn of our lives. 

At the centre of this novel stands a beautiful friendship, that between an old man and a young woman – Daniel and Elisabeth, almost 70 years apart in age. Their relationship was not even the least bit physical, but it was love all the same. They meet as neighbours when Elisabeth is merely 8 and become lifelong friends.

If you think about it, not much happens in the book, yet everything is different by the end of it. Such is the effect of time.

Time functions as a non-linear entity here, we flit across the British political and cultural landscape at various times, and meet back in 2016, which is also where the novel begins – in the tumultuous aftermath of the Brexit. 

It is about Daniel and Elisabeth’s separate experiences of time connected by their collective experience of time. It is the intermixing of time. Ali Smith, with her wizardry of words, explores the connectivity of things between the past and the present, between age and youth, between art and life. In so far, this is a book of nuances and don’t be surprised if you don’t make sense of all of it, all at once. I wished I understood more of the cultural references, especially the life and art of Pauline Boty and the Scandal of 63’.

The novel soars in its depictions of everyday life after Brexit-vote, in an era of fake-news politics and general disillusionment of people. The novel also breathes brilliance into the portrayal of Daniel and Elisabeth’s friendship. There’s melancholy in Ali Smith’s words, but also a kind of nostalgia of good times past, but there’s a fresh jolt of hope too. After all, autumn is not the end, it is the beginning of winter and the certainty of spring, albeit far-off. 

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