“There’s a way to be playful even in times of really terrible doubt,” posits the narrator of Ali Smith’s new novel Companion Piece. It’s hard to think of an author more playful than Smith, whose work consistently breaks the conventional rules of contemporary fiction as taught in most American MFA programs—with consistently incandescent results.
Like Smith’s acclaimed Seasonal Quartet, Companion Piece feels like it was written at a fast pace, in response to unfolding world events. While the Quartet took on climate change, Brexit, and the return of fascism, Companion Piece is set during the Covid-19 pandemic. The narrator, Sandy, eagerly awaits news of her father who is in critical condition in the hospital suffering from heart disease; she is unable to visit and gets all her news of him through a screen. Sandy is also worried about the state of the country and the planet, about how “ancient rivers running through the country were filling with completely legal excrement.” The metaphor speaks for itself here: “the virus loved to leave traces of itself in shit.”
One night Sandy receives a call from an old college acquaintance, Martina Inglis, who is eager to recount a recent event in her life. While transporting a precious lock for the museum she works for, Marina was held in passport control for several hours trying to re-enter the country. During this ordeal, she heard a voice communicating a mysterious and seemingly nonsensical message: “Curlew or curfew? You choose.” The rest of the book’s action, such as it is, unfurls in an attempt to understand this communication, though as usual what Smith gives us is less a plot than a kind of metaphorical expansion on the book’s central themes; “The choice…is something to do with difference and sameness,” Sandy explains to Martina.
One of the book’s central themes is the role of art itself; in a world that is literally going to shit, does beauty still matter? Martina’s encounter with the great mysteries is triggered by her examination of the Boothby Lock itself. “Whoever made it had God knows what magic in his hands,” she tells Sandy. Sandy herself is an artist who overlays words of poetry to form a single painted image. Her father dismisses her work as “painting words on top of one another so nobody can even read them.” For Sandy, her paintings capture the total meaning of the poem.
As if in answer to the story that Martina Inglis tells Sandy, Companion Piece gives us another story about a smith from the late middle-ages who also lived in plague times, the possible creator of the fictional Boothby Lock. As in How to Be Both, Smith imagines the life of a female artisan trying to make her way in a man’s profession. Though the actual events of the girl’s life are distressing, the result is strangely reassuring, as if Smith is reminding us that times have always been tough, and that people have always found ways to make beautiful things anyway.
My only quibble with the book is that it feels unfinished; something in the relationship between Sandy and Martina Inglis remains unresolved, though this may well be by design. As Sandy says, “a story is never an answer. A story is always a question.”
Companion Piece does feel like a companion to Smith’s other work—not a groundbreaking departure but a very pleasant and often humorous complement to her other work. Smith herself remains a very fine wordsmith indeed. I may have quoted from the book too much already, but Smith is nothing if not quotable, and so I’ll end with this conversation between Sandy and Martina’s daughter, Eden, about books:
No, I meant why are books important? She said.
Apart from that they’re a pleasure? I said. Because, uh, because they’re one of the ways we can imagine ourselves otherwise.
Why would we ever want to do that? Eden said.
Why wouldn’t we? I said.
by Ali Smith
Published on May 03, 2022