The Millions

Things Fall Apart: On Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’

It’s a care, a real care, when a writer whose work you love takes on a project like a seasonal quartet. The potential for readerly woe is plain: four novels forced into a form already replete with corny allegories and tired themes.

Ali Smith begins her seasonal quartet of novels with Autumn, followed by, of course, Winter. She doesn’t dump those most tired of themes—decay and death. She jumps right into them. Autumn opens:

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.

Her Autumn and Winter do indeed fall apart; they unravel. They were never tightly constructed in the first place. Autumn and Winter are no more neatly plotted than life itself; like human life, they are constructed of stories. Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family. At times, all these goodies threaten to tumble us into a literary junk shop, but Smith exerts a literary master’s superb confidence in her readers; she trusts us to make of her glorious mess the novels she wants us to read.

The three stanzas of ’s poem “To Autumn,” lend its three sections: summer’s departure, fall’s transformations, winter’s threshold. Departures, transformations, thresholds: ’s people move and metamorphose in the most dramatic ways we humans know: growing up and dying. Elisabeth, the book’s female protagonist, grows from child to woman, a metamorphosis conveyed

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