Autumn is a novel of ideas, and plot isn’t the reason we keep turning the pages. What grips the reader is the way that Smith draws us deeper into Elisabeth’s world ... the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel is partly a beacon held up against the darkness that falls in the wake of the vote. Smith is brilliant on what the referendum has done to Britain, the fissures that have appeared ... I can think of few writers — Virginia Woolf is one, James Salter another — so able to propel a narrative through voice alone. Smith’s use of free indirect discourse, the close-third-person style that puts the reader at once within and without her characters, means that Autumn, for all its braininess, is never difficult. Smith feels like a genial guide leading us through a torrent of ideas — about art, history, literature, feminism, memory. This is a novel that works by accretion, appearing light and playful, surface-dwelling, while all the time enacting profound changes on the reader’s heart. In a country apparently divided against itself, a writer such as Smith, who makes you feel known, who seems to speak to your own private weirdnesses, is more valuable than a whole parliament of politicians.
There’s a bit of a Harold and Maude thing going on here. Daniel is a Manic Pixie Dream Oldie, to twist a phrase, as was Harold’s much older friend, played by Ruth Gordon in Hal Ashby’s indelible 1971 movie ... As Elisabeth and Daniel talk, and as Elisabeth processes the events of her life, a world opens. Autumn begins to be about 100 things in addition to friendship. It’s about poverty and bureaucracy and sex and morality and music...All along, in the background, like the lounge music of the damned, there is a sense that a certain kind of world is coming to an end, post-Brexit ... Ali Smith has a beautiful mind. I found this book to be unbearably moving in its playful, strange, soulful assessment of what it means to be alive at a somber time ... Autumn has a loose structure, almost like that of a prose poem. This form is perfect for Smith, because her mind will go where it wants to go. And where her mind goes, you want to follow.
What kind of art will come out of this moment? If Ali Smith’s Autumn is a harbinger of things to come, the work that emerges over the next decade will be extraordinarily rich ... Through Smith’s dazzling, whimsical feats of imagination, a news cycle described by Elisabeth as 'Thomas Hardy on speed' becomes the backdrop for a modernist interrogation of history ... As the novel proceeds, she layers together fragments of books and paintings and song lyrics in an act of literary decoupage, as if to mimic the fragile patchwork of national identity ... Smith, in reckoning with the catastrophe and wreckage of a fraught historical moment, picks through it just as precisely to reveal the beauty and the humanity buried deep below the surface.
...[a] beautiful, subtle work ... Smith teases out big ideas so slyly and lightly that you can miss how artfully she goes about it ... Smith’s writing is fearless and nonlinear, exploring the connectivity of things: between the living and the dead, the past and the present, art and life. She conveys time almost as if it is happening all at once, like Picasso trying to record an image from every angle simultaneously. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp all the nuance, to corral all the unruly strands into a coherence, especially in Smith’s most Woolfian stream-of-consciousness moments ... The best parts of Autumn, the most moving parts, the transcendent parts, come during Elisabeth and Daniel’s conversations about words, art, life, books, the imagination, how to observe, how to be. Theirs is a conversation that begins mid-paragraph and never ends.
In her memory-scapes and dreamworlds, Smith reveals the buried longings of her characters; their agony, their hopeful eagerness, their fear of death. At one point, she imagines 'all the things from the past…like a huge national orchestra biding its time…all the objects holding still and silent till the shops empty of people…Then, when darkness falls, the symphony…The symphony of the sold and the discarded. The symphony of all the lives that had these things in them once. The symphony of worth and worthlessness.' Autumn is a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities; the 'endless sad fragility' of mortal lives.
Autumn is another breathless feat. It might sound unseasonal, as if inhabiting another time, but in actual fact it engages acutely and beautifully with topical concerns and perennial issues ... Autumn feels less like a standard novel and more like an intricate collage of ideas and impressions. Smith's most substantial components speak volumes with poetic intensity and lucidity about an enduring companionship, a fractured Great Britain, the tragedy of aging and the cyclical nature of time ... If this brilliantly inventive and ruminative book is representative of what is to come, then we should welcome Smith's winter chill whatever the season.
From the dreamy, disorienting opening of Autumn, we are in the strange territory that will be familiar to readers of Ali Smith, whose books play slyly with notions of time, character and plot ... Daniel, who takes Elisabeth to see The Tempest, is something of a Prospero to her Miranda, a fatherly magician summoning the wealth of words and images that will shape her life ... a novel that, under all its erudition, narrative antics, wit and wordplay, is a wonder of deep and accommodating compassion.
While less structurally complex than How to be both and less playfully pun-filled than There but for the, Autumn again knits together an astonishing array of seemingly disparate subjects, including mortality, unconventional love, Shakespeare's Tempest, a rhyming advertisement jingle, and the xenophobia underlying both Nazism and current populist neo-nationalism. Some components, like Christine Keeler and the Profumo affair, fail to resonate, particularly for American readers. But generally, Smith is better at making tight connections than most airlines ... Free spirits and the lifeforce of art — along with kindness, hope, and a readiness 'to be above and beyond the foul even when we're up to our eyes in it' — are, when you get down to it, what Smith champions in this stirring novel.
Smith knows how to tease the glory out of the most plainspoken English. Smith is sometimes classified as an experimental novelist, a label that may impute for some readers a grim, chorelike quality to the reading of her work. But Smith’s literary spirit is essentially playful ... Autumn’s most daring formal move is to attempt the immediacy of journalism, depicting the national mood while the nation is still feeling it ... At first Smith’s choice to start with autumn seemed out of character, but of course that means that this ambitious four-novel sequence will end with summer and Smith in her element. If we are all very lucky, perhaps the world will catch up with her there, too.
...[a] zany, moving, beautiful and soul-affirming novel ... What this odd couple share is a gift for telling stories and an accompanying 'capacity to become someone else, if we so choose.' What they become — and what Autumn itself becomes — is a leisurely, time-shifting collection of short snapshots featuring their friendship, from their first encounter as neighbors to Elisabeth’s long hours at Daniel’s bedside, in the assisted care facility where he straddles the boundary between life and death ... as is often true with Smith, fiction and history are entwined — true to her belief that the stories we tell not only empower us to create new worlds but also remind us that what we inherit as fact is itself an interpretation, inviting us to question the order of things ... It’s why I’ve long loved Smith. Like Boty — and like Dickens — she helps us see our best selves, even in the worst of times. We’ve never needed her more.
Like any successful novel of ideas, Autumn doesn’t end; it reverberates in one’s bones, recalling Eugenio Montale’s argument in The Second Life of Art, that the power of a book, painting, dance, or any art form is not a culminating catharsis but a recurring echo. Thus Smith’s autumnal leaves cling to trees as the questions and quandaries linger ... Autumn shimmers with wit, melancholy, grief, joy, wisdom, small acts of love and, always, wonder at the seasons.
Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family. At times, all these goodies threaten to tumble us into a literary junk shop, but Smith exerts a literary master’s superb confidence in her readers; she trusts us to make of her glorious mess the novels she wants us to read.
Smith’s sly and ambitious novel attempts to overturn this [dramatic] way of thinking about climate change by bringing its less obvious effects into view ... while Smith’s love of complexity hasn’t always worked in her favor, here she’s found a subject that merits the full measure of her stylistic ingenuity. Autumn is one of the first novels to take climate change seriously as a problem of form ... By removing the traditional scaffolding of plot and causation, she invites the reader to make connections that other climate-change novels, in the key of apocalypse, drown out.
In many ways, Smith’s novel can be read as an argument that art matters—especially in times of political upheaval. Art can transform, talk back, and turn vandalism into a beautiful message. It connects historical and cultural moments that might otherwise be left untethered ... Autumn works convincingly as an aesthetic marker of political darkness and its repudiation. At once a brighter and more absurd world than our own, Autumn is steeped in puns and paintings and unlikely love stories. And like Elisabeth’s mother, stockpiling things to throw at the fence, Smith invites the reader to take what they need in order to mount their own defense of play, beauty, and the freedom to break down whatever wall stands in their way.