She has done it in the past; and she does it again here. Ali Smith’s fixation on, and a visible mastery of, story-telling across timeline, in no particular order, shines in this experimental, breezy novel as well.
Centred around the 30-something Elisabeth Demand and her centenarian friend, Daniel Gluck, Autumn is a long, vibrant, occasionally melancholic, sometimes acerbic but entirely warming season of their friendship. Elisabeth, with a ‘s’, is a history of art professor, whose interest was originally kindled in the subject she currently teaches, by the liberal hours she had spent with Daniel, her then-babysitter. As a genial neighbour to Elisabeth’s busy mother, he had agreed to be her caretaker, and in turn, had relished the artistic discourse with the little Ms. Demand. Fast forward a good twenty plus years and Daniel is now a patient in a day care, under the constant vigil of nurses and in wait of, perhaps, the same palliative cacophony of Elisabeth’s inquisitive murmur.
Throwing light on the two personalities and what edification the many seasons of life imparts, the chapters run forward and backward on the tenuous thread of time. Smith shapes her Elisabeth with a smart countenance, boisterous wit, wry humour and banal gloom.
The man creases up. It seems he was joking; his shoulders go up and down but no sound comes out of him. It’s like laughter, but also like a parody of laughter, and simultaneously a bit like he’s having an asthma attack. May be you’re not allowed to laugh out loud behind the counter of the main Post Office.
Whether it is the ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles she encounters in her efforts to secure a passport or the disdain she receives at her rebellious choice of thesising on Pauline Boty, Elisabeth comes across as a feisty heroine who is subdued by the autumnal phase of her friend and the dried momentum of her own life. Amidst random allusion to political upheavals in Europe (read Brexit) and the millennium bug, it is the generous badinage between the two key characters that bring this work to life. Velvets of sentiment and pun run through the pages, making Elisabeth’s first person narrative as effective as Daniel’s reticent third person narrative.
At once, hilarious, stimulating, querulous and refreshing, this is Smith’s frolicking side at play, without losing the sight of her trademark percipience. Winter, I await.
[Note: Thanks to Netgalley, Ali Smith and Penguin Books (UK) for providing me an ARC.]
[Image courtesy pixabay.com ]