As with her last novel, How To Be Both, which also focused on an artist, in that case, 15th-century painter Francesco del Cossa, Ali Smith’s latest work brings to our attention Pauline Boty, the only woman artist in the Pop Art movement of the 1960s. Boty, known as the ‘Wimbledon Bardot’ for her resemblance to the French actress, died aged 28, after being both feted and critiqued, and it’s no coincidence Smith references Keats throughout, as yet another ‘bright star’ who died tragically young.

Of course, one of Keats’ most famous poems is his ‘Ode to Autumn’, with the famous line, "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". Smith brings together the action of Autumn’s falling leaves with the artistic practice of collage, for which Boty belatedly became known – forgotten for many years after her death, she enjoyed a retrospective in 2013 – to create a similar effect in her novel. Famous for her experimentation with novelistic structure, Smith gives us scraps and glimpses that themselves feel as though they have fluttered down from above to land and be flattened on to the page. The language is simple, the connections linked often on the surface in a way that’s almost Beckettian in its echoing rhythms: "Daniel Gluck, your luck’s run out at last. He prises open one stuck eye."

However, this novel is also about the aforementioned Daniel Gluck who was an immigrant to Britain during the Second World War, and the neighbour of art history lecturer Elisabeth Demand. He used to look after her when she was small and her rather distracted mother was off doing other things, and Elisabeth has loved him ever since. Now he is in a care home, on the verge of death, seemingly unconscious. Elisabeth, visiting him regularly, remembers their many conversations, and his loose connection to Pauline Boty. Daniel’s house was once covered in what Elisabeth’s mother called "arty art"; it’s thanks to Daniel that Elisabeth has a career in art history.

Or a kind of career. It’s hard not to wonder if, in her title, Smith is hinting at the ‘Autumn’ of a nation, as through Elisabeth she critiques the increased bureaucracy, xenophobia, intolerance and impersonality of a country that seems determined to defend its borders whatever the cost. One day whilst out walking, Elisabeth follows the perimeter of an electrified fence until a security man, following her in his van, gets out and with various threats of imprisonment orders her to walk away. It’s common land, protests Elisabeth. "The nettles say nothing. The seeds at the tops of the grass stems say nothing…" Elisabeth is a "no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer" living in the same flat she rented as a student because she can’t afford to get on the property ladder in London. She’s powerless, as the confrontation with the security guard shows. Boty, in her exhilarating pop-art images and in her exhilarating approach to life while she had it, seemingly offers a counter to that powerlessness.

But the 1960s wasn’t all about power and liberation for women. Elisabeth finds the painting Boty did of the infamous Christine Keeler image, where Keeler is sitting naked on a chair. Glimpses of Keeler’s life emphasise powerlessness, too, whether it’s her step-father crushing the field mouse she brought home as a child, or what happened to her later in life as a highly-paid escort. Boty’s act of reclaiming that famous photograph for her painting could be seen as a highly subversive move. Where are today’s subversives? Perhaps, like Elisabeth, they’re too busy being held up in pointless Post Office queues.

Autumn is the first in a series of four novels connected to the seasons and to some it might seem a strange way to start: if Smith follows the seasons in sequence she will complete the quartet with Summer, a similarly strange place to end. But an often warm and friendly strangeness is part of Smith’s appeal. Her experimentation is close, rather than lofty and distant; her characters wholly sympathetic for all their cut-up representation; her intellectualism lightly worn, not point-scoring. The long life of Daniel Gluck, dying at over 100 years old, stands in sharp contrast to the curtailed life of Boty. One of them got to enjoy an Autumn, and the other did not. We should appreciate getting to such a season, if we do, for all the looming darkness of winter.