The year’s biggest literary prize – the Man Booker award – is announced on Wednesday morning, October 18 (NZ time). All week this week we review the six shortlisted titles. Today: Louise O’Brien on Ali Smith’s Autumn, and Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.
Unsurprisingly, at least two of the books which made it to the Booker shortlist are concerned with the enormous social, economic and human upheavals occurring in our contemporary world. Autumn and Exit West are both novels very much of our time, grappling with societies in the midst of apocalyptic change and trying to imagine what might come next.
At the centre of Ali Smith’s Autumn is a strange and unrequited love story which exists largely in the memory and imagination of the narrator, Elisabeth. She has moved back in with her mother in order to be closer to Daniel, now a century old, who played a formative, crucial role in her early life as a neighbour, mentor and friend. He taught her much about seeing and appreciating beauty and truth in the world, and now she sits and reads by his bedside as he sleeps, silent and still, approaching death.
Yet Autumn is primarily a work of social commentary, the first in a planned seasonal quartet of novels, and published unusually quickly after the events it describes. Set in the immediate aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, referencing the murder of British MP Jo Cox and the British government’s responses to asylum seekers and refugees, it reflects ourselves directly and immediately back to us. It’s a world of increasing isolation and isolationism, of cold and petty bureaucracy, pervaded by a miasma of selfishness and unkindness, all set against a background of xenophobia and racism both effortlessly casual and deeply, nastily malicious.
The seasonal metaphor, with all its considerable literary freight, adds to the gathering gloom. The light of summer is fading, and the characters long for those bright and golden days now past when the world was kinder. It’s a nostalgic remembering, an attempt at a kind of time travel or resurrection, and a means by which to measure the present, which is found sadly wanting.
In Autumn, the present is ghastly, and meaning and beauty exist in the past. Elisabeth looks backwards, despite her youth (she was born in 1984), seeing “a future in the past”: a lecturer in art history, she vividly describes the vibrant pop artworks of her favoured period of the 1960s, and reads once-loved, second-hand classics (including Brave New World, each layer of irony successively grimmer than the one before). Her mother is similarly obsessed with antiques, as the artefacts of a better time. Even at the level of the prose, the delightful and very clever mash-up of literary relics, ideas and phrases which hark back to a glorious cultural past is a constant reminder of how good things used to be. And, of course, Daniel, who represents the summer now gone (his sister calls him “summer brother”), is inert, and near death.
In counterpoint, the novel also – though much less persuasively – offers some glimmering rays of hope that the effects of summer may linger on. Daniel’s not dead, after all, just in a coma, and the influence he had on Elisabeth shapes her still, just as her love for him endures past his summery prime.
Moreover, the seasonal metaphor imposes a logic of hope in the eternal cycle of the natural world which will inevitably bring us back to spring, and then to glorious summer again. Nature and its beauty is a constant theme. As Daniel lies in his hospital bed, he dreams of being renewed and restored, with sap rising and in green-leafed vigour (literally: Daniel dreams that he grows leaves). The metaphors are occasionally heavy-handed.
But the coming of spring seems a long way off, certainly too far away to hang all one’s hopes on, so perhaps, instead, it’s suggested, we should accept that loss and change aren’t always bad. Elisabeth, at a precocious 13 years old, thinks that, though the imprints of the circus tents may have gone from the grass, leaving no lasting sign of their summer joys, that perhaps that doesn’t matter, that things are not meant to last, that the seasons turn and things ends and that can be okay: “melancholy and nostalgia weren’t relevant in the slightest”. The end of things may even be a relief, it’s suggested. Or maybe summer wasn’t actually as good as we remember, and so needn’t be mourned at all: is that the point of Elisabeth’s one-sided memories of her relationship with Daniel? Besides, don’t forget that it’s happened before: every year the summer goes and autumn falls and the winter darkness seems endless, but we endure. The book begins: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the things about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.”
In many, rather unsatisfying ways, despite Smith’s undeniable literary skill, Autumn is gestational, even tangled, unsure of its position, trying to talk itself into (or out of) a position which is as yet unformed. Perhaps this is because it’s only the first part of a larger work yet to be seen, or because of the lack of distance from the world it describes, in time and in objectivity: “Here’s an old story so new that it’s still in the middle of happening, writing itself right now with no knowledge of where or how it’ll end.” Time will tell. But, in the meantime, it might be wise to prepare for a cold, dark winter ahead.
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid, speaks of the same times and to many of the same fears as Autumn does. It, too, uses a love story as the lens through which to observe a world beset by change and riven by uncertainty. But its tone is quite different from the strains of overwhelming loss and underlying panic of Smith’s book. It takes the perspective of those who have been oppressed, abused and dispossessed, the migrants and refugees who have no choice but to accept the changes they did not seek and cannot avoid. More, though, the novel looks ahead and beyond to imagine the possibilities of the future.
The full Man Booker shortlist:
4321 by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber) – read our review here
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) – read our review here
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (JM Originals, John Murray) – read our review here
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Bloomsbury) – read our reviews here and here
Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
Two young people, Saeed and Nadia, meet and fall in love in a city “mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”. Tellingly, it could be one of any number of places in our modern world, and it remains unnamed. They fall tentatively, gently in love amidst a backdrop of bombs, militants, soldiers, harsh new laws, curfews, gunfire and public executions. For a while, amazingly, they continue a semblance of ordinary life despite their surroundings. They attend classes, meet for coffee, pray, surf the web, perform their dreary office jobs: “our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” When rumours circulate about doors which, Narnia-like, offer passage to other, more desirable places – to London and San Francisco, to Greece and Dubai, to peace and freedom most of all – the couple decide to risk leaving.
The novel then shifts into magical realism, a dreamy fantasy of a possible future in which enclaves of refugee communities take over unused palatial homes in London, in which migrant squatters in Kensington and Chelsea form “black holes in the fabric of the nation”, millions of people moving via doors which appear and disappear at random till the whole world seems to be on the move.
The natives of Britain “seemed stunned by what was happening to their homeland, what had already happened in so brief a period, and some seemed angry as well.” Nativist backlashes ensue, police attempt to move people on and away, cordons are set up, but these acts are set against the aid agencies, governments and volunteers which are also active in offering food, shelter, work and friendship. New cities form around the ones we know, and the world takes on a new shape.
Exit West shares the teetering, precarious uncertainty of Smith’s world, though its central characters have less privilege with which to cushion it. This contingency is beautifully mimicked in the writing, which declares itself always as conditional and leaves plenty of room for alternate possibilities: “Nadia had a beauty mark on her neck, a tawny oval that sometimes, rarely but not never, moved with her pulse”; listening to a long-dead singer and “her so alive but no longer living voice conjur[ed] up from the past a third presence in a room that presently contained only two”. The prose is lovely, demanding and deserving of attention to its detail and shades.
Throughout, personal relationships are essential, precious and very fragile. Leaving one’s home can be an act of violence against those we love, for “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” Similarly, a new home alters those we took with us, as Saeed and Nadia “found themselves changed in each other’s eyes in this new place”. Exit West is generously and movingly compassionate, far from the satire/cynicism of some of Hamid’s earlier work. It is also enormously satisfying, because it is so hopeful. The apocalypse is not apocalyptic, change might be shocking but it is emphatically not the end, life goes on and “plausible, desirable futures beg[i]n to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now”. And don’t we need more of those.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton, $37) and Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamillton, $26) are available at Unity Books.