‘All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic. All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won’.
Autumn is the new glorious novel from the Baileys Prize-winning author of How to be both, which has recently been short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. It was written and published at high-speed to become the first ‘post-Brexit novel’ and is only the first in a series of four books named after each season that aim to explore ‘what time is’ and ‘how we experience it’
It is a moving novel about a young woman, Elisabeth, and her elderly childhood friend, Daniel Gluck. Elisabeth, born in 1984 is a junior lecturer in history of art, some say she’s “living the dream” but Smith retorts only if ‘the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago.” Then there is Daniel Gluck, who is her century old next door neighbor who presently lays dying in an assisted care facility. Through a puzzle-like, time-darting plotline we watch as a treasured and grand friendship grows between Elisabeth and Mr Gluck, during which he introduces her to a new way of thinking, exploring ‘arty art’, reading and clock-time. All in all, Autumn is a fearless and soulful tale brimming with humanity and the marvellous mundane, which beautifully explores time, art, mortality and love whilst simultaneously managing, with humour and grace, to make a sense of post-Brexit Britain.
An important aspect of Smith’s autumnal work, and one that we adore, is the acknowledgement of the literal and rhetorical borders that govern our outlooks and divide post-Brexit Britain. Yet, whilst acknowledging these divisions, Smith simultaneously presents a hopeful cast of zealous, rebellious and border-bending characters from Mr Gluck who defies the boundaries of old-age with his youthful outlook and zesty character to the mettlesome and vivacious Pauline Boty, the real-life British pop artist and herald of 1970s feminism, who readily disputes gender stereotypes. This ‘barrier-cancelling’ cast inspire us to pull down the borders that box us in as both individuals and as a nation – and realise a Brexit Without ‘Borders’.
But how do we bend our borders? During the first chapter of Autumn, Smith sweeps us into an imaginative alternate reality, a beached after-life conjured by Mr Gluck where she thoughtfully describes the unimagined beauty of a handful of sand – exclaiming in jazzy sing-song and rhyme – ‘How many worlds can you hold in a hand, in a handful of sand’. Britain is that handful of sand, a farrago of diverse and beautiful grains, we each represent one of many sandy specks in a ‘pulverized world’, we have been hauled by swift political currents and tempestuous tides to find ourselves washed up on the bewildering shores of ‘Brexit Beach’ – where each of us are a castaway deserted in our Brexit experience – and all of us are stranded on an island that now stands alone in the rough seas of our current affairs.
We may turn on the news in search for tidings of our rescue, or cast our eyes out over the chaotic seas for a politician to sail to our aid – but the reality is a murky ocean of tweet-sized comments and a party of politicians treading water in rough seas. But – what we do have is Ali Smith’s blazing beacon of a novel – in a country that is apparently divided against itself – this wonderful book helps us to think objectively about Brexit – and more importantly offers hope – Smith makes clear that each of us – a grain of sand – command our own world, ‘it’s a question of how we regard our situations, how we look and see where we are’ – many claimed that Brexit was about control – we have control over how we view Brexit, how we treat our neighbours and ultimately how many literal and rhetorical borders we want to build and more excitingly, bend.
Early in the book, Elisabeth writes a ‘portrait in words’ of her European neighbour, Mr Gluck. To ‘bend borders’, we suggest that we too should work to understand our ‘neighbours’ – maybe even to write our own portraits – that showcase Britain’s diverse nature and simultaneously celebrate what ties us all together as both Brits and humans. Regardless of what you voted or of the small print on your passport we’re all in that handful of sand together, washed up on Brexit Beach, and as Ali Smith makes clear, we as individual ‘grains’ and a as whole can change the tides and create the best post-Brexit Britain – a Brexit Without ‘Borders’.