Companion Piece, Ali Smith’s novel published earlier this year, does exactly what it says on the tin: it is, in one sense, a companion piece to her 2016-2020 seasonal quartet (all reviewed at various points below) dealing, as it did, with themes of aspects of the appearance of modern Britain (though this is much shorter); it looks and feels similar to that series, with a paper fold around the hardback version conveying a Hockney painting, this time featuring a wood rather than a single tree; and there is a long-lost artist embedded within its pages, too (here: Frances Holmes Boothby – I did indeed do exactly as suggested and googled it, dear reader (p. 13), of course I did – an artist who was ‘part of a small group of artisan jewellers… during the mid-20th century… [whose] designs were characterised by natural forms such as… eccentric-looking birds with long, spindly wire legs‘. On top of all that, with a theme centred on humanity living with Covid-19, which just about crept into Summer as ‘the sickness’, it is about our search to re-learn the tools and techniques of companionability, following isolation and the associated closure of the places in which we socialise and make a ‘happy noise’ (p. 117) together; and the need of many of us to learn how to be together again.
Other than sharing those themes – and like the individual volumes in the seasonal quartet, too – this is otherwise a self-contained novel with a reasonably linear narrative told predominantly from a single voice: Sandy, an artist and seeker after solitude whose oeuvre includes the painting of the lyrics to poems, one on top of another, and sometimes back to front, receives a call from Martina, an old, and barely remembered, college ‘less than acquaintance’ who has a story to tell about her recent trip abroad with the Boothby Lock, a historical artefact and museum piece; with the circumstances of her return leading to her hearing a whispered injunction which appears to be ‘curlew or curfew: you choose’, the mysticism of which has driven her so wild with being unable to find meaning in it that she contacts Sandy – whose skill at deconstructing meaning in poems lay behind what little contact they had in college – for an interpretation, which Sandy provides. Sandy, in return, both grateful for the distraction that the out of the blue call provides as well as intrigued by the possibilities it presented, goes on to spin Martina a story about a recent, and mystical, visitor to her house: a waif, apparently a time traveller, carrying a long-beaked bird, of some type, and who also tells her a story revealing herself in the process to be no stranger to modern vernacular.
Martina’s personal reaction to Sandy’s story, which largely occurs off the page, then involves her 20-something grown-up children, Covid-19 denialists and also both still looking for meaning and their place, as well as being potential carriers of Covid-19, descending regardless on Sandy’s house and privacy, invading both with the language and customs, and the knowledge and expectations, and demands, of youth. Sandy, whose elderly father had been rushed to hospital with heart problems, reacts with patience, wry humour and no little engagement, but also physical distance, seeking to preserve her ability to visit her father, once visiting restrictions are lifted, so as not to bring an illness of another type to him.
Around this narrative, Smith works her normal magic which will, according to the reader’s tastes, enthrall, frustrate or plainly annoy. There are excursions a-plenty; there are word plays (which Smith sees as both having a ceremonial history as well as being hereditary); there are observations on the way we live our lives and which act as social (and political) commentary; there is meaning that shifts the ground from under the readers’ feet; there is impossibility and imagination and the supernatural rendered real; and there is mischief, with the hand of the author visibly intervening to resolve aspects of the tale which bring the stories together. There are ends left untied – for, as Sandy observes, in the motto which has become that of Companion piece itself, ‘…a story is never an answer. A story is always a question’ (p. 155). Above all, it is endlessly inventive, whether this be in conjuring a history for Frances Holmes Boothby’s designs or in its joy of language and of story-telling. The beauty of Smith’s work is that the reader, journeying through the book, is never quite sure where they are and, on finishing it, not quite sure whether what they’ve read is truly real and, indeed, precisely where they’ve been other than that the journey has been engaging and fantastical and one which, ultimately, may well have revealed to them a truth or two about their own lives.
Sometimes, that truth may be one of the circularity of things: the park where Sandy walks her father’s dog in his absence has been grown over the top of a medieval plague pit; the parents and then the guardians of the waif who visits Sandy had all died of the Black Death, coughing themselves to death. Thus does time collapse (in one place in the novel quite literally), revealing the issues that we are preoccupied with today – such as the health effects of pandemics, women in the workplace and in society – as concerns with which humanity has been confronted before, whether it be several centuries ago or just a few decades. At the same time, however dark the times and however dark the individual circumstances of the artist in question, human creativity still manages to bring us something beautiful: a sign of the hope which is manifest in Smith’s work. Indeed, for her, hope is a ‘tightrope across a ravine’; and one that is, indeed, ‘as sharp as a knife blade’.
The structure of the work is extremely interesting: divided into three parts entitled ‘you choose’, ‘curlew’ and ‘curfew’, Companion piece resembles one of Sandy’s paintings in its layering of meaning out of words, although I wouldn’t agree with some reviewers that it could be read, section by section, back to front (I did so, as a second reading): the linear nature of the core narrative, and Sandy’s father’s illness, makes it a different book when the sections are read in reverse order. At the same time, we owe it to the artist writer to address the book in the order in which she has also chosen to present it.
This might not be, as the reviewer in The Guardian also comments, a work of auto-fiction, with Smith appearing in the novel as Sandy, but there is an early, apparent self-reference (‘I didn’t care what season it was… I even despised myself for that bit of wordplay, though this was uncharacteristic, since all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal sidekick.’) (p. 4/5). There is also a reference to Sandy being intrigued by Martina’s story on the grounds that tick many of the political themes explored in Smith’s seasonal quartet (p. 24); although it is not as though Sandy would be alone in despising the ‘inept and callous’ (p. 30) actions of this government. This might be just about as close as we might get to Smith appearing as herself in her own book – she has said in one interview (from 2021) that ‘very little’ of her fiction is autobiographical, that ‘very rarely’ had she tried to write autobiographically, statements that we should probably take at face value. Apart from this appearance of writer-as-character, if Smith is in here at all, however, I would insist that it is in the abstract personage of the waif – herself a smith – who may well have been the creator and the maker of the Boothby Lock.
Smith’s choice of Hockney paintings for her cover serves her well: the wood in the painting, through which she walks both with her father and in which she gets lost while out taking exercise and thinking about how to react to Martina’s story, serves as metaphor both for the disorientation of ageing as well as providing the verbal context of the progress of her father’s recovery. Like him, we as a nation may not yet be out of the woods but the ending – a gloriously, exquisitely painful one full of bright positivity, suggests Smith’s belief that our essential, enduring character (and the simple word ‘hello’, which echoes through the novel) is one that will, some day, take us there. That there can, and will, indeed be ‘better days, and possibilities of positive change’.
Once, it seems, we ourselves have chosen to remove a government in which we have ceased to trust and the sheer malicious presence of which might well make us wonder whether we had hallucinated it.