The primary relationship in the book is between Elisabeth and Daniel Gluck, a much older neighbor with whom she formed an immediate friendship as a child. In one of the narrative’s many leaps backward, Elisabeth is shown at eight years old, fascinated with the man next door, whom she characterizes as “elegant” and whom her mother dismisses as an “old queen” who collects “arty art.” But neither snub is true: Daniel is a joyful soul, a sprite-like aesthete who recognizes a kindred spirit in the curious, wounded Elisabeth. “The lifelong friends,” he tells her. “Sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”
In the “present” of Autumn, Daniel is more than a century old and living in a residential care home in a comatose state, and his dreams make up the book’s more mythological and existential wanderings. “How many worlds can you hold in a hand / In a handful of sand?” he ponders in one moment, before watching his body get younger before his eyes, and conjuring a coat for himself made out of leaves. At the same time, Elisabeth visits him to read books by Huxley and Dickens, and recount real-world news that seems stranger than fiction. “Someone killed an MP,” she tells him. “A man shot her dead and came at her with a knife. Like shooting her wouldn’t be enough. But it’s old news now. Once it would have been a year’s worth of news. But news right now is like a flock of speeded-up sheep running off the side of a cliff.”
As Elisabeth mulls the aftermath of the vote, which she observes has left her mother’s English village in “a sullen state,” with graffiti on one cottage that reads “GO HOME,” flashes of Daniel’s life shed light on the cyclical nature of history. In September 1943 in Nice, a young woman later revealed to be his sister is rounded up and placed in the back of a truck from which she makes a bold escape attempt (the book is evasive regarding details, but that same month was when the Nazis rounded up Jews in the south of France and transported them to concentration camps). Later, Elisabeth learns that Daniel and his German father were both interned by the English during the war. In one of Daniel’s dreams, he sees a beach covered with dead, washed-up bodies, while holidaymakers sit under beach umbrellas just along the shore.
The jumps back in time serve both to put modern history in context and to construct the remarkable friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel, who becomes her babysitter of sorts while her mother leaves for possibly unsavory pursuits. Daniel introduces her to the work of Pauline Boty, another central figure in the book, and a real Pop Artist who died in 1966, at the age of 28. Boty’s works, dismissed by many during her lifetime because of their creator’s Bardot-esque glamor, become the life force of the novel, and as her significance in Daniel’s life becomes clearer, she also has a profound effect on Elisabeth’s. Smith also considers Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old exotic dancer who became the central figure of both a 1960s scandal that brought down the Conservative government, and one of Boty’s paintings, although Keeler’s presence is the most atonal note in Autumn, and the hardest inclusion to make sense of.