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Once upon a time, Ali Smith and I were besties. I loved her books, she loved my reviews of them and we smiled at each other at book festivals. Those were the days.

 

Then, Ali Smith wrote The Accidental. This had a rollicking riff of an opening chapter-ette. It was like the Trainspotting Choose Life riff. It rocked. And somebody said to Ali Smith - you are a fantastic writer and you should do more of that. So she did.

 

Now someone needs to tell her that she is good, but not that good. Her writing is not strong enough to carry a plotless book, despite more than one attempt at it. First and foremost, she is a storyteller. 

 

So in Autumn, we have a short collection of ideas; a girl who befriends her neighbour, then she visits the neighbour as he grows old and she finds him a bit of an embarrassment. There are references to Brexit - so perhaps we see Mr Gluck, the neighbour, as a bit like Europe. Basically good but people just want to move on. Hmmm. And once this metaphor lodges, you can't shift it. There's no story, no character development. Just a lot of lists and riffs. As the end approaches, very slowly for a book with so few pages, it starts to dawn on the reader that there is no big idea that is going to tie it all together. It just ends, as suddenly and pointlessly as it began. 

 

There are plenty of cultural references along the way - a TV show that is Bargain Hunt in all but name, the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop phone number, Jo Cox getting murdered, but none of it seems to be taking us anywhere. I know some people have raved about this book but I really cannot see it myself. I see Ali Smith's next novel is called Winter. Maybe it offers even slimmer pickings than Autumn. 

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I love Ali Smith, but would admit that her most recent novels are less satisfying than the earlier ones (the Booker-shortlisted Hotel World and The Accidental, and, before those, the astonishing and underrated Like). I would also admit that her short stories are virtually all disappointing.

I understand when people don't like her at all, because they tend to be people who expect a novel to provide more narrative thrust - and who would defend E.M.Forster's "Yes - oh dear yes - the novel tells a story."

 

Although I sympathise with MisterHobgoblin's criticism that "none of it seems to be taking us anywhere", it might also be pointed out that a novel is not necessarily a means of transport. In a (deliberately) desultory way, Autumn tells us all sorts of things about living in England right now, and is a (deliberately) curious combination of prose and meditative poetic asides. It won't be everyone's cup of tea - but the tea (to extend the metaphor) has such a very English flavour (Autumn is definitely a book about Englishness) that it can be savoured without it really mattering whether there is any point to it.

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On 23/08/2017 at 02:10, jfp said:

Autumn tells us all sorts of things about living in England right now, and is a (deliberately) curious combination of prose and meditative poetic asides. It ... has such a very English flavour (Autumn is definitely a book about Englishness) that it can be savoured without it really mattering whether there is any point to it.

 

Yet Ali Smith is fiercely Scottish. 

 

I acknowledge that a novel doesn't have to lead with a narrative, but I think the skill required to carry a plotless novel is immense and I don;t think Ali Smith manages it. A novel has to have something about it that keeps the reader reading and in Autumn I couldn't find it. 

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On 24/08/2017 at 12:40, MisterHobgoblin said:

 

Yet Ali Smith is fiercely Scottish.

 

Is she? In what way(s)?
I don't remember anything at all specifically Scottish about the setting of Autumn (such as it is), and was strongly aware of the book's Englishness. (There is, you will agree, no such thing as "Britishness", especially just now.)

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