Among the titles on the 2017 Man Booker Prize shortlist is Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016). This is the fourth time that one of Smith’s novels has been shortlisted, though she has never won. The prize is widely regardedas an indicator of quality writing and of a novel’s seriousness.
Autumn, as the first novel to tackle the UK’s impending departure from the EU, is certainly serious – so much so that it may even indicate a new direction for British political fiction. Smith’s use of the novel to map out social and cultural changes revitalises the British’s novel’s engagement with political culture.
The 1980s was a turning point for British fiction in this regard. British writers such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst began to channel ideas about individual and national identity. In particular, many of them used their writing to directly contradict the idea of Britishness articulated by Thatcher. Many of the tropes that these writers included in their initial responses to Thatcherism continue to be echoed in their more recent work. What Ali Smith has done is to move this debate further, engaging with a more recent political shift with questions of national identity at its heart.
In many respects, Autumn fulfils the role that the Scottish moral philosopher, Adam Smith, believed the novel had. Research by Maureen Harkin suggests that he considered the novel to be a means by which we can see the world from other peoples’ perspectives. By reading novels, we are better positioned to empathise with others’ experiences of the society in which we live. Harkin also writes that Adam Smith saw the process of writing history as a literary project, rather than a scientific one. To construct history is to tell a subjective story – and that inevitably leads to the exclusion of some perspectives.
Autumn tells the story of Elisabeth Demand, an art history lecturer, and her life-long friendship with an old, eccentric neighbour. This is set against the backdrop of the UK’s vote to exit the European Union. Elisabeth’s name, her neighbour tells her, means “of the world” (a reference to Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” speech). Political tropes and events like the Home Office’s “Go Home” immigration vans, the murder of Jo Cox and the referendum outcome also ground the novel in our current political moment.
The novel raises questions of citizenship and belonging, particularly in relation to immigration. Throughout the novel, Elisabeth’s attempts to renew her passport satirise the issue of identity in the UK. She is told that her old passport (one month expired) does not prove who she is. Then, her new passport application cannot be accepted because her face does not “look right”. She is requested, then, to pose in a way which makes her look unlike her everyday self, to prove that she is herself.
The novel concerns itself with the reliability of dominant narratives, asking us to interrogate whose voice is heard. Smith mixes the past and the present by drawing parallels between the EU referendum campaign and the Profumo affair.