by Ali Smith

Read time: about 7 minutes

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

The first few sentences of Charles dickens’ ‘A tale of two cities’ was set in a great political time. The countries were fighting for a revolution. A big change was made. It united the common folks. It was autumn.

Ali smith brings us a book set in a similar time, different era. But everything is falling apart. It is no surprise, though. Because ‘That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature’.

Cover page

Ali smith extensively talks about autumn in the book. The leaves fall off slowly and, of course, there is a story of a boy who would pick up the fallen leaves and tie it back to the tree. There are multiple references to the season in the book. Hence, the cover page.

The cover may not be appealing at first sight but it is a work of art when you finish reading the book and come back to admire the cover. It is the theme of the book that is artistically put on the cover.


The book is primarily about two characters. There is Daniel. He is hundred and one years old. He is the summer brother to his sister. He is the old man who can talk about the origin of words and describe a painting well enough for you to imagine it in your head. Because of course, you seldom get to see the pictures. He is suspected to be gay but talks about love like he and love have been in a melancholic relationship. Daniel is the best friend to Elisabeth Demand.

Daniel believes that Elisabeth can be a queen someday, like queen Elizabeth. But she has always doubted it. She is Elisabeth with a ‘S’ and not ‘Z’. Elisabeth hardly remembers her father. She remembers the cracks in the pavement better than she can remember her father’s face. That makes her sad.

Now these two characters are not in any physical relationship. No, Elisabeth was never abused by Daniel. She even despises the thought. People ask it in a way that there was something to go wrong here. Like they would have liked it had she been abused.

The two characters share a beautiful friendship. It is made even more pious by the narration of the author here.


The book begins with a reference from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.

It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.

It serves the dual purpose of shaming the present and comparing it with some golden times in the past, even though it’s fiction.

Daniel is swept on the seashore. He thinks he is dead. He feels like it. He observes that he is not wearing any clothes. He sees girls coming towards him so he runs behind the trees and wears leaves.

Elisabeth, on the other hand, is waiting inside a post office with a token to be called to the counter but she somehow never hears her number being called out. There are not even too many people but still she doesn’t hear it.

Daniel is later found in a care unit, skipping breaths.

The book is set in the time of ‘now’. It struggles with choices made during ‘EU referendum’. Parallel to the present the author shows a glimpse of the past. She is bombarding that fence with people’s histories and with the artifacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times.

The book has no plot but multiple references hitting hard like an apple to the bare body. It makes us think about the choices we make as a collective and as an individual. It begs for a better future which starts from ‘now’. It demands respect for the past and the way we see it. Not to be forgotten once and recovered again, and repeating the process. The author makes a point with hard-hitting descriptions of art and references to literature. There are references to race and personal choices hidden behind the simple words, easy to miss but when found are nothing short of literary jewels.

The book is multilayered. It is one of those books which gives another perspective every time you read it.


The language is viscous. Every word demands attention as if, if you missed a word , an important part of history is lost. The scenarios fuse into each other giving way to new beginnings only to familiarise us with what has already happened. There is also a nostalgia in the writing. The magical elements in the literature references and diluted stoning of human conscience. As they say, if they possess your conscience they possess everything.

Good points

The cover page is beautiful. The characters are very different from each other but they all suffer the same. The content is like a dream, flowing from one to another without the hiccup of transition felt. The language is liquid gold.

Bad points

The book is only a short read, but it demands complete attention. Those who do not know the references may miss a few clues but nothing that google can’t help with.


This is my new favourite.

Who do I recommend this to

This book is for all those who want to read contemporary classic but are too afraid to pick one up. For those who like to treasure hunt are going to enjoy this one too. And generally, everyone. This is a piece of literature which needs to be read by everyone.

Quotable quotes

He opens his fingers. The sand drifts down. Now that he’s up on his feet he is hungry. Can you be hungry and dead? Course you can, all those hungry ghosts eating people’s hearts and minds.

When he was a boy in the poorhouse for children, the orphanage, when his mother was taken to the asylum, he got given a bag of sweets and an orange at Christmas time, all the kids in the place got the same. But the difference, here’s the difference. He made that December bag of the sweets last all the way to October.
He’d shake his head.
Genius, he’d say.

They’re both standing in the pure clean white space. Yes, she says. Now we can sell this space for a for fortune. Only the very rich can afford to be this minimalist these days.

It happens when things are becoming more (slight pause before she says it) final. The pauses are a precise language, language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks.

How do you mean, finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago. The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol.

It depends on how you’d define normal, Elisabeth said. Which would be different from how I’d define normal. Since we all live in relativity and mine at the moment is not and I suspect never will be the same as yours.

The ARC was sent by the publishers for review. The opinion here is completely my own, uninfluenced.

Pre-Order your copy Here.

Veena Choudhary

An avid reader and history fanatic.

Mumbai, MH