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September 27, 2017

Reading : Autumn by Ali Smith



Sometimes, things and people happen in life at the right time and that falling into place has a satsifying click, a warmth that's both surprising and soothing. Autumn by Ali Smith is that kind of book at this time in my life--perfect on its own but also more moving because it's September, because it takes place during Brexit and a time of hate, anger, and confusion.  Timeless and timely.

A lot of my favorite books are driven less by plot and more by character, so I would give the disclaimer that this book isn't a conventional storyline.  Not a whole lot happens.  It feels like the book version of the movie Lost in Translation (my favorite movie), so if you're not into things that are more about mood than action, it might not appeal to you as much.  But if you like lush language and short scenes full of atmosphere, Autumn does this so well. It's the first of four books in a series of seasons, which made me skeptical at first since that's been done so much, but now I'm so glad there will be more.

The foundation for the book is the platonic friendship between Elisabeth, an eight year old girl, and her elderly neighbor Daniel Gluck (also reminiscent of Lost in Translation).  The book moves back and forth in time, from Elisabeth's girlhood to Daniel's dying days (when he's one hundred and one).  They relate to one another by telling stories and describing paintings, getting at the truth and feeling of things by.  Sometimes this is a way to cope with the brutality of real life images, like the xenophobic spray-paint of "GO HOME" plastered on an immigrant home.  Sometimes it's just the pure pleasure of making things up.  It's a means of living for each person on their own, and a way of connecting to one another.  When everything else is divided (England, races, family), this remains solid, even when Elisabeth reads aloud to Daniel while he's in a coma.

Smith somehow makes the book really simple and incredibly layered at the same time.  It's short, reads fast in big print, and the words themselves aren't obscure or pretentious.  She strings them together in so many different ways, sometimes more like abstract poetry than prose, which seems like it would be jolting.  A passage I savored: "His heart is beating and his blood's going round his body, he's breathing in then out, he is asleep and awake and he's nothing but a torn leaf scrap on the surface of a running brook, green veins and leaf-stuff, water and current, David Gluck taking leaf of his senses at last, his tongue a broad green leaf, leaves growing through the sockets of his eyes, leaves thrustling (a very good word for it) out of his ears, leaves tendrilling down through the caves of his nostrils and out and round till he's swathed in foliage, leafskin, relief."

But even as the style changes it all feels like part of the same universe.  From the mind of an eight year old comes lines like "He said it as if a time could be a place."  And I love this depth that Smith gives a young person: "Crying came out of her like weather."  She blurs the line between external conversation and internal thought, and everything feels very naturally connected, whether she's talking about Elisabeth's personal life, or about nature, or about politics.  I'm not descriptive and imaginative enough to articulate exactly how this book reads, which is part of what's so great about it.  It's incredibly creative, but in a way that makes it more visceral and accessible, not less.

One thing I treasure so much in Autumn is the love for what reading does for us: "Always be reading something, he said. Even when we're not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant."  Most of all, the book is kind to people, and knows that sometimes the best way to stay kind in real life is through fiction: "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 given them a choice--characters who seem to have no choice at all. Always give them a home."

It's also really funny, which is something I've always appreciated because I'm not funny.  I also value this more and more as I've gotten older and experienced more difficulty and have found a consistent solace in humor.

I get most of my books from the library, but after I read this library copy, I bought an actual copy.  Mostly, I want to have it near me because its existence--that someone wrote these words, formed these sentiments--makes me really happy. It's also something I will want to read again, in the same way that I've watched Lost in Translation dozens of times when I just want to be in that kind of wide-open mood--a space attentive to senses and the story of character, the kind of fiction that makes life better and makes you in life better.  

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