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Ali Smith’s “great Brexit” novel is about more than pol­itics. Unsplash

Take two people born at opposite ends of the same century, build a bond between them, and let the world rotate and rot around them. That is how Ali Smith con­structs her novel “Autumn,” which came out a year ago.

The next instal­lation, “Winter,” releases today in the UK, right as the first frost kills off all of autumn’s late-season flowers.

In “Autumn,” Daniel Gluck is 101 and Elis­abeth Demand is 32, yet a gap of nearly 70 years does not hinder their tender friendship.

But around them, the world is spinning itself apart. Brexit has divided their small town outside of London into fac­tions. A fence has even been erected to further accen­tuate the divi­siveness. Immi­gration policy marks the fence with “GO HOME” and “WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU” spray-painted alongside each other.

Despite the obvious intrigue of the book, Ali Smith uses the political context to explore the power of a bond that tran­scends the issues of a spe­cific age.

The leaves are falling, and Smith, in her first of a four-novel cycle, flexes her writing muscles to produce original and inventive descrip­tions of autumnal decay rem­i­niscent of John Keat’s “To Autumn,” which Smith nods to several times.

And that is only one of the peripheral lit­erary allu­sions with which Smith places her novel in a tra­dition of 19th century social lit­er­ature that aims to encap­sulate the spirit of the time. Charles Dickens haunts the novel, the first line of which is a take on the famous beginning of “A Tale of Two Cities.” It reads: “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” Later, as Daniel rests at his care facility, Elis­abeth reads him “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Though Smith’s novel is not Dick­ensian in length, she does create char­acters who ruminate tire­lessly on the past. Much of the book con­sists of Elisabeth’s tender reflec­tions on her friendship with Daniel, like the movies they watched from a pro­jector in his backyard, the long walks they used to take, and his per­sistent question, “What you reading?”

Like Pip or Abel Mag­witch from Dickens’ “Great Expec­ta­tions,” Smith’s char­acters contend with their past as Elis­abeth and Daniel con­tem­plate a life apart from one another.

Daniel, however, is asleep for almost the entire book, expe­ri­encing the world through surreal dream sequences. Sec­tions of the book written from his point of view require Smith to use her clear, spare prose to illus­trate complex con­cepts (for example, Daniel imagines a com­pletely white scene upon which he can overlay colors like skin). 

Dis­placed in his slumber, Daniel imagines he is in a heaven where he deter­mines the land­scape in the first chapter. He con­tinues to expe­rience the eternal while his friend sits beside him and pre­pares for his death.

And as she sits there, Elis­abeth con­tem­plates the history of her and Daniel’s friendship. She makes con­nec­tions between her current life and the world to which Daniel has exposed her. In par­ticular, he loaned her art books that led her to appre­ciate art and study it in graduate school. She even wrote her dis­ser­tation on the first British female pop artist, Pauline Boty, first intro­duced to her by Daniel.

One of the final images Smith employs sym­bolizes per­fectly the effect that Daniel’s life has had on Elis­abeth.

“The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it even­tually peels away, its leaf shape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.”

In “Autumn,” both the book and the season, leaves fall, plants wither. In the spring, the snow melts and as we often say: All is new. But Smith realizes that past seasons still leave their imprint.

Past rela­tion­ships form us into the people we are. And a rela­tionship with an elderly person could end up leaving its marks upon habits and lifestyles.

As the air adopts its biting chill and snow begins to fall, we will begin to look forward to the next spring. And as we do so, we should con­sider not only the freshness of the reju­ve­nated world, but also the things we carry along from seasons long past.