Saturday 25 November 2017

Take on post-Brexit Britain is breaktaking

Fiction: Autumn, Ali Smith, Penguin, hdbk, 258 pages, €16.99

Unshowy and assured: Ali Smith
Unshowy and assured: Ali Smith
Autumn by Ali Smith

Tanya Sweeney

Chaos, uncertainty, a nation divided: can a novel about the fallout of Brexit ever be beautiful? In the hands of Ali Smith, it certainly can. It's fitting that Smith has set her thoroughly current novel in the autumn of 2016; a season traditionally associated with decay, the drawing in of days and, in some ways, starting over.

Proving Smith's ambition and scope, Autumn is the first in a four-part series (the other titles will be Spring, Winter and Summer). It's thought that all four books will interweave to some degree, yet if the first instalment is anything to go by, the series is destined to become a canon classic.

Yet given Smith's propensity for originality and inventiveness, the novel starts in a timeless, nameless place. Smith yanks the reader on to a most compelling vista. Centenarian Daniel Gluck has washed up naked on a shore, seemingly dead. His body soon returns to its former strength and glory ("Death. Full of surprises."); upon seeing a circle of singing sirens, he bolts for the woods, and starts to make himself a suit out of leaves.

"He would make a good tailor. He had made something, made something of himself. His mother would be pleased at last. Oh God, is there still mother after death?" writes Smith in her opening passage.

Thirty-two-year-old art history lecturer Elisabeth, meanwhile, is feeling the cold front of modern-day Britain. Her mother's neighbourhood has doors with 'Go Home' emblazoned on them, and she has to endure the trials of queues, no fixed contract, job insecurity and the quagmire of modern-day bureaucracy (a passage in the post office, ostensibly a banal exchange with a desk monkey, proves particularly nerve-fraying for Elisabeth and the reader alike).

Elisabeth - witty, world-weary, cynical - is also a regular visitor to Maltings Care providers, where she meets Gluck, an old neighbour from her childhood. To the eight-year-old Elisabeth, Gluck is initially not much more than the 'old queen' next door (her mother's words). He slowly reveals himself to be a man of significant fame and fortune, and the pair grow closer while Elisabeth's mum pops to Tesco (and never returns with things from Tesco). He is a collector of art, including the work of Pauline Boty (one of the most talented, if overlooked, figures of British pop art, also known as the 'Wimbledon Bardot'). In time, the enigmatic Boty becomes the subject of Elisabeth's dissertation. Their lives seem starkly contrasted at the outset: while Boty died young and craving fame, she still wrung the best out of her short life; powerlessness be damned.

While England shakes outside after its momentous election ("All across the country, people felt they'd really lost. All across the country, people felt they'd really won."), Gluck is sleeping extensively, the way 101-year-olds are often wont to do. A symptom, according to carers, that he is drawing ever closer to the end. For Elisabeth, it's a "privilege to be able to witness someone both here and not here".

But this is an Ali Smith novel, and for that reason, things will never be as straightforward as 'girl meets man'. Parallel landscapes and dream worlds feature heavily and time and history become fluid as Elisabeth and Daniel's back-stories reveal themselves. It's become one of Smith's stocks in trade, this playing with time (How to be Both featured a story set in 15th century and another in modern-day Britain). Here, we flit from 1940s France - Daniel's origins as a German Jew - to England circa the Profumo Affair. (Boty was responsible for the infamous Christine Keeler image of her straddling a chair, naked). Art, feminism, literature, politics, it's all in the mix. And in 258 pages, no less.

This all may sound abstract, gimmicky even, but Smith has a way of keeping her metering, pacing and lyricism snappy and sweet. In saying things with stark simplicity, she makes observations that dance on the page. Smith's telling of modern-day Britain is especially keen, with its xenophobia and discontented denizens. This is the first novel, to my mind, to significantly address post-Brexit Britain (Mohsin Hami's Exit West is out early next year). That Smith has done so with such impressive sleight of hand, and with such expediency, is incredible. Smith appears to have nailed her own colours to the mast, in case you're wondering; there's a real sense that Britain has made a big mistake, the full impact of which will only unfurl in the future.

Trying to put a pattern on Autumn's plot is fruitless. Smith is not one for a linear narrative. It is her writing style - unshowy and assured - that is the novel's real strength.

As Daniel notes: "Time travel is real. We do it all the time, moment to moment."

This, ultimately, is the backbone of the book. As concepts go, it's simple, but a brilliant and breathtaking one.

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