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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Review: Autumn

Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith

Autumn is a little crazy, but wholly beautiful. By a little crazy, I mean that to the average reader, it is a disjointed mess. By being beautiful, I mean that Smith has a way with weaving gorgeous prose. I haven't read enough Ali Smith to know if this is just her style—it is my third—but I'm beginning to think it may be. And while Autumn is definitely more humorous, poignant, and breathtaking than other works I've read from the author, it's such an incredibly broken story (structurally speaking) that I'm hesitant to heap too much praise on it.

Autumn is the story of Elisabeth and her relationship with her mother. It is the story of Daniel, a centenarian who has been mentor and friend to Elisabeth. It is a story about bureaucracy and the results of Brexit, a tale of acceptance and prejudice. It is a story as old as Keats and as 'contemporary' as Trump. And it is the tragedy of Pauline Boty, 1960s British pop artist. It's Boty's story that really pulls the reader in. Despite the wonderfully written sentences and the joys of watching Elisabeth apply for a passport, nothing stuck with me in this story more than the tale of Boty.

I hadn't heard of Boty prior to reading this novel. I doubt many readers will have. I wondered whether she was even a real person or merely a fictional creation of the author's, so I hopped on over to my local search engine and began a research project that ended hours later. 
Being a relatively little known but successful artist and actress during her brief life, it is a wonder Boty is not better known today. The fact that she's not, paired with the story of her tragic death (...and her husband's … and their daughter's), makes her story all the more interesting. It's a family tragedy that draws comparisons to the BrontÈ…'s. You can feel, in this novel, that Smith was getting sucked into the story of Boty, whether that was her original intention with the novel or not. In turn, the reader, attracted by that passion, is easily pulled in too.

Elisabeth is a wonderful character. She is funny in her moments of desperation; she inspires during her more reflective moments. The whole cast is fine. The story is jumbled, but it's certainly not bad. The language is, as I mentioned, phenomenal. The scenes are drawn with skill. Autumn is a very capable novel, but what sticks with me in the end is the story of Boty. But Boty is only a fragment of what this novel is about. It's about so many things. That lack of focus kept me from loving this novel as much as I might have otherwise.


Man Booker Prize 2017:
Although I had planned on reading this novel eventually, I was spurred to read it sooner as an attempt to make it through the 2017 Man Booker longlist. I may revise my thoughts on Smith's chances of winning after I've completed more of the books on this year's list, but I think Autumnstands a fair chance to make it to the shortlist. It's intelligent, beautiful, and extremely poignant, and those are three factors that tend to play into the Man Booker Prize. Not having read enough of the other nominees at this point, I can't attest to Autumn's overall chances of taking the prize, but I think there have got to be better candidates amongst this year's nominees. I will not be shocked if Autumn makes it to the shortlist; neither will I be shocked if it is cut.