Book review

One reason Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ may have been shortlisted for the Man Booker? Sheer inventiveness

Will it be fourth time lucky for this capricious and courageous Scottish novelist?

One cannot just pick up an Ali Smith book to begin reading; it needs a certain mood, a kind of willingness to give oneself up entirely to a writer’s imagination and playfulness. It’s hard for a reader to do this, to bend, but then Ali Smith is a three-time Man Booker-shortlisted novelist – make that four-time, following the shortlisting of Autumn for this year’s prize – and winner of several other awards, besides being a highly regarded books and art critic.

Autumn – the first in a cycle of novels representing the seasons – reflects several enduring concerns of Smith’s, but also takes up, in an oblique and satirical way, the quiet and yet tumultuous effects of the UK’s Brexit vote. Autumn, however, is set in the months preceding Brexit, with suspicion and hate already in the air, visible in the way neighbours view each other and in the abstruse details insisted on by the passport bureaucracy.

The novel also takes up, movingly, the fleetingness of memory – why certain memories linger and change, what memories we are left with in the autumn of our lives, and the strange nature of human connections and relationships. These latter aspects have appeared in some of Smith’s work before.

What lives on

In her second novel, Hotel World (2001), the first of Smith’s novels to be shortlisted for the Booker, and winner of the Encore (for best second novel) Prize, Smith suggests, through the lives of five women characters – two of them “ghosts” – that while our interactions with others, even strangers, may be short-lived and doomed to impermanence, we may yet be united by emotions and situations, uniquely human, such as grief and tragedy. This may sound clichéd, but in this novel, Smith experiments with grief, its stages, and the inevitability of death; a fact that all living creatures must contend with and about which humans live in wilful ignorance, often choosing often not to “live” at all.

In Autumn, Daniel Gluck, ageless and ancient – he could be 110 or just 101 – is close to death and yet Elisabeth (spelt with an “s” in her name, a typical Smith artifice to indicate a character’s combination of uniformity and stubborn uniqueness) knows he has never been more alive than in those moments when she visits him in the care facility. Daniel lies silent, unmoving as he is strapped to his breathing device, but Elisabeth knows he is moved, as she reads to him, from Brave New World and then A Tale of Two Cities – novels that, in Smith’s metafictional way, speak of the present-day world and Britain.

Autumn is a novel that jumps through time, splicing periods. It moves from superficial, mind-numbing interactions with the bureaucracy, and the rich, inexplicably mysterious interactions, sometimes unvoiced, between humans who, at first glance, may have nothing in common. What Daniel Gluck does, and his past, remain always a mystery to Elisabeth, right from the beginning when he arrives as their new neighbour, already old and ancient, to the eight-year-old Elisabeth. But he has stories to tell her, stories that will make her see the world differently, even read old stories and fairy tales in a totally different light.

Daniel tells Elisabeth in the course of a game involving stories:

 “What I’m suggesting…is, if you’re telling a story, always give your characters the same benefit of the doubt you’d welcome when it comes to yourself.

And always give them a choice – even those characters like a person with nothing but a tree costume between him or her and a man with a gun. By which I mean all characters who seem to have no choice at all. Always give them a home.”

A “lost” painter

It’s a suggestion that must have remained with Elisabeth in some subconscious way. As an art student, she encounters quite by accident a catalogue listing all the by the radical, innovative Pop Art British artist of the 1960s, Pauline Boty (1938-1966). Boty, who died aged only 28, was a pioneering woman artist (and actor), ridiculed and feted in every measure in her short life, who has, in recent years, seen a rightful resurrection of sorts.

Smith has written of her as well, as in this piece for the The Guardian. In Autumn, via Elisabeth, she retraces Boty’s life and her mysteriously lost paintings, especially one of a nude Christine Keeler, the model involved in the Profumo sex scandal which shook the Harold Macmillan government of the early 1960s, seated in an Anne Jacobsen chair. As with Boty and her short yet very brimful life, Autumn, for all its slimness, is rich in its themes. It prompts, if not a rereading straightaway, certainly a rethink of many of its premises, and even of the definition of a novel.

Smith’s 2005 novel, The Accidental, begins with the arrival of an unexpected, unwelcome guest named Amber into the home of the Smart family. Its second section is an exploration of new 20th century cinema, where Amber imagines herself as a character in several films. This is a narrative device Smith uses to expose the vulnerabilities and unacknowledged flaws in her characters. In Autumn, Smith uses the past in various ways to show up the richness of days, seemingly ordinary, and lives that may also appear ordinary in every measure.

Mysterious and many-themed

One can find shades of Kafka in this novel – for instance, in Elisabeth’s frustrating and repetitive interactions with the post office workers. Or of Joyce, when Daniel, drifting in and out of consciousness, is fleetingly aware of the world around him, lost as he is in the rich imaginings of his own past.

There is in Autumn something of Smith’s other novels, such as There But For The (2011) and How to be Both (2014). The section titled “For” in the former is set entirely in the head and thoughts of May Young, an elderly woman suffering from dementia. Our thoughts are what make us, Smith seems to suggest, regardless of how we may appear to the world. In Autumn, Daniel Gluck believes stories could be one’s truth.

In How to Be Both (2014), the Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa makes a post-modern appearance (as a woman), looking back at her (his) own life as lived four hundred years ago, and bemused at how she is regarded by the boy (who could be a girl) watching her (the artist del Cossa) in turn.

Smith turns fiction into a playful, experimental, wildly inventive exercise. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up, especially if you have just encountered her. Smith demands a certain loyalty and understanding, but there are always new and different ways of looking at the world, ways – as she seems to be telling you in all her novels – that are unique to each reader. Every life must be lived in truth to itself, never to anything else.

Autumn: A Novel, Ali Smith, Pantheon.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Movies can make you leap beyond what is possible

Movies have the power to inspire us like nothing else.

Why do we love watching movies? The question might be elementary, but one that generates a range of responses. If you had to visualise the world of movies on a spectrum, it would reflect vivid shades of human emotions like inspiration, thrill, fantasy, adventure, love, motivation and empathy - generating a universal appeal bigger than of any other art form.

“I distinctly remember when I first watched Mission Impossible I. The scene where Tom Cruise suspends himself from a ventilator to steal a hard drive is probably the first time I saw special effects, stunts and suspense combined so brilliantly.”  

— Shristi, 30

Beyond the vibe of a movie theatre and the smell of fresh popcorn, there is a deeply personal relationship one creates with films. And with increased access to movies on television channels like &flix, Zee Entertainment’s brand-new English movie channel, we can experience the magic of movies easily, in the comforts of our home.

The channel’s tagline ‘Leap Forth’ is a nod to the exciting and inspiring role that English cinema plays in our lives. Comparable to the pizazz of the movie premieres, the channel launched its logo and tagline through a big reveal on a billboard with Spider-Man in Mumbai, activated by 10,000 tweets from English movies buffs. Their impressive line-up of movies was also shown as part of the launch, enticing fans with new releases such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, Blade Runner 2049, The Dark Tower, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Life.

“Edgar Wright is my favourite writer and director. I got interested in film-making because of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the dead. I love his unique style of storytelling, especially in his latest movie Baby Driver.”

— Siddhant, 26

Indeed, movies can inspire us to ‘leap forth’ in our lives. They give us an out-of-this-world experience by showing us fantasy worlds full of magic and wonder, while being relatable through stories of love, kindness and courage. These movies help us escape the sameness of our everyday lives; expanding our imagination and inspiring us in different ways. The movie world is a window to a universe that is full of people’s imaginations and dreams. It’s vast, vivid and populated with space creatures, superheroes, dragons, mutants and artificial intelligence – making us root for the impossible. Speaking of which, the American science fiction blockbuster, Ghost in the Shell will be premiering on the 24th of June at 1:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M, only on &flix.

“I relate a lot to Peter Parker. I identified with his shy, dorky nature as well as his loyalty towards his friends. With great power, comes great responsibility is a killer line, one that I would remember for life. Of all the superheroes, I will always root for Spiderman”

— Apoorv, 21

There are a whole lot of movies between the ones that leave a lasting impression and ones that take us through an exhilarating two-hour-long ride. This wide range of movies is available on &flix. The channel’s extensive movie library includes over 450 great titles bringing one hit movie premiere every week. To get a taste of the exciting movies available on &flix, watch the video below:


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of &flix and not by the Scroll editorial team.