‘Time Travel Is Real: a Review of Ali Smith’s Autumn’, by Alice Robinson


When you meet me in the opening sentence of this review of Ali Smith’s eighth novel Autumn, my husband Daniel has just fainted in the bathroom and is tucked up in bed with a saucepan and a towel in case he needs to be sick again. Our children are at day-care, the house thrown into an unnatural state of quiet as though the furniture is holding its breath. My back hurts because I fret that there are not enough hours in the day for writing and earning money and wiping snot, and Pilates. There’s a cup of tea at my elbow. And the planet is in crises. Icecaps melting. Drowning polar bears. Refugees are washing up on beaches by the thousands. Somehow I always seem to miss the self-appointed deadline for ordering our supermarket shopping online. “Hunger, want and nothing,” says Elisabeth Demand, describing the events she is approaching in A Tale of Two Cities, reading aloud at the deathbed of her best friend/only love, 101-year-old Daniel Gluck – not dying, she asserts, just sleeping for very long stretches. “The whole city’s in a storm at sea and that’s just the beginning. Savagery’s coming. Heads are going to roll.”

My Daniel is worried that he’s suffered an aneurism. Tomorrow a doctor will assure us it’s only severe sinusitis. Decades before, his grandfather whacked an ace in tennis then dropped dead on the court. The kitchen table where I work, trying not to check social media too often, irrelevant updates vacuuming minutes and hours of my finite time, once belonged to my grandmother, dead before I was born but undeniably present in stories, in the artefacts left behind. The timber was unblemished when the table was passed down but it became quickly scarred by the clip-on highchairs my babies used briefly, learning to eat. “Time travel is real”, Daniel says to Elisabeth when she is still a little girl. “We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.” One day, years from now, a child I’ll never meet will eat at the table and think, or not know enough to think, of me.

Some reviews of Autumn have expressed concern that this is a strange season in which to commence what Smith intends as a suite of four books. To begin in autumn means that the quartet will finish in summer, perhaps an equally odd place to end. But to me it seems that, if spring is about rebirth, winter about stasis, and summer is bright and vibrant, then autumn is the season of unstoppable transformation: a bridge between intensity and hibernation, the shift before things freeze. The fall season then, cool and crisp, offers logical and beautiful allegorical humus within which Smith’s ideas can take root.

(Autumn is also, as it happens, my favourite of the seasons. But it is a problematic time of year for a settler Australian to cherish, belonging to long-abandoned homelands with foliage of red and gold, cold. There is guilt attached to enjoying autumn in Victoria: Maple, Elm, and Oak. Such ‘natural’ beauty at such great cost.)

Exploring life in Britain on the cusp of what may well be catastrophic upheaval post-Brexit (“like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with”), Autumn, the first novel of its kind to be published in the wake of the vote, describes the current, polarised state of that nation. “All across the country, people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick … All across the country, people felt like they counted for nothing. All across the country, people waved flags in the rain.” The narrative takes place in the important but frightening instant after a major decision has been reached but before its true impacts have been felt. It also takes place across all time. “Time-lapse of a million billion flowers opening their heads … of a million billion buds becoming leaves then the leaves falling off.”

With the novel’s incredibly swift publication we are granted something rare: an account of this time, now, in tandem with its real-world unfolding. The reader is reminded that transition is the only reliable human condition. By being given a view of ‘the now’, alongside the whole of Elisabeth’s lifetime and what came before it, the reader is placed in a position more commonly reserved only for protagonists of fiction: life radiating in two directions at once from the present, ahead to the future and behind to the past. The outcome is that we are afforded something too rarely achieved in real life: perspective. Like the view from a plane, Autumn allows us to see the whole picture. It illuminates the all-consuming issue of the day and reaches beyond it, simultaneously showing it, Elisabeth and by extension our own lives, up close and also dwarfed against the enormity of geologic time.

In every aspect of the story things are sliding away from their potential. Daniel lies dying. An odd parcel of vacant, common land in the village has been viciously fenced off: “Prison for trees. Prison for gorse, for flies, for cabbage whites, for small blues. Oystercatcher detention centre.” In ‘the now’ of the novel, Elisabeth is almost in midlife, barely surviving the fallout of neo-capitalism’s impact on the workforce, on property prices; she is living the first world, disillusioned, disempowered life of the young-ish everywhere who worry at the discrepancies and relationships between splurging on smashed avo and foregoing a home:

thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours, casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream, her mother says, and she is if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do.

I am also a casual lecturer at a university and finding the world unaffordable. At thirty-four, I could already be midway through my life except for the fact that I don’t know how long I’m going to live, and this causes me considerable anxiety. Especially since becoming a mother. It’s as though I’m shooting through the hours so rapidly they’re gone before I understand they’ve arrived, my finger hard on the trigger of an automatic weapon. When my father turned sixty, he touched his face and said, “The body changes but inside I’m just the same.” That happened nearly a decade ago. A number of years before that, at about twenty-one, I was unequivocally beautiful, but had absolutely no idea what I looked like. That year and the best part of the decade that spooled out behind it were spent mediating the low hum of self-doubt. I recognise that youthful beauty now, thanks to hindsight and the legacy of photography. What I didn’t realise then was how much worse things could get.

Autumn is a book about transience and change, and the potential for disaster. The characters are not fixed in time, but rather we flash forward and back, observing them age and grow younger, flower and wither. I’ve always felt this process of undoing painful in narrative, longing to dwell with the characters at their peak physical beauty, their ultimate potential, the moment of uncomplicated hope and perfection that is expressed in the linear and naïve structure of fairy tales: they lived happily ever after. But real life goes on beyond the bounds of such ‘endings’, so too Autumn. The mood of the novel is exactly like a lengthening autumn afternoon, low lit, darkening, veined with nostalgia, painful in its heartrending beauty. Reading the novel is like looking back at family photographs of times no one fully appreciated when they were unfolding. “See how it’s deep in our animal nature,” Daniel says to Elisabeth. “Not to see what’s happening right in front of our eyes.”

We already know that the characters will grow up and grow older; perhaps they will grow apart. They will disappoint and misunderstand one another in time – we have already seen it happen. When I look into my daughter’s face I see my own face, and my Daniel’s. Elisabeth wants to write her dissertation on what she refers to as “Arty Art”. Our son Artie (his initials: A. R. T.) recognises himself in the black and white photograph on our mantle in the kitchen, little children playing, joyful on the beach. He exclaims, “There, Artie!” Except it isn’t Art, but Daniel. “That’s your Daddy!” I clarify, and Artie’s brow furrows. His Daddy is tall and this is a picture of a little baby boy, like him.

Somewhere there exists a photograph of myself as a toddler, standing in my artist father’s studio, pressing one naughty little palm to wet canvas. The oil painting I am touching is a huge portrait of my own wide-eyed baby face. Even now in the flesh, decades later, it is possible to make out the tiny handprint faintly preserved in the red paint. The handprint on the painting is the size of the hands I hold now to cross roads safely (“look to the left, look to the right, look to the left again”), fitting my children but no longer fitting me, like an heirloom glove.

Elisabeth is a girl, Daniel the benignly intriguing older man next door, when their friendship begins, founded in the space between what is original and what is a copy or representation. Elisabeth’s mother encourages her daughter to make up the interview she plans to conduct with Daniel for a school project. “Pretend you’re asking him the questions. Write down the answers you think he’d give.” Afterwards, the mother exposes Elisabeth’s fiction to its subject. “It’s lovely, her mother said. A Portrait In Words of Our Next Door Neighbour.” In turn, Daniel’s gift to Elisabeth is his verbal descriptions of paintings he loves: “The background is rich dark blue … the giant hand is holding inside it a tiny hand, a baby’s hand. More truthfully, the baby’s hand is also holding the big hand.” Years after that, Elisabeth commits to write her dissertation on artist Pauline Boty, little-known Pop Art painter, creator of the work Daniel once described. But Elisabeth’s supervisor is dismissive of her proposal; there’s not enough critical material on Boty, he claims: “She was gorgeous. But not a painter of anything more than minor interest.” Boty’s work consists largely of paintings of other images, and so the patterning of imagery and motif repeat, reminding us that, like the seasons, what goes around comes around. Even the most beautiful (or terrible) moments, people, and times eventually, mercifully, and heartbreakingly, go past.

Alice Robinson’s debut novel Anchor Point was long-listed for The Stella Prize and the Indie Awards (debut fiction) in 2016. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University.