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Companion Piece


Companion Piece

It’s been fewer than two years since the publication of Ali Smith’s SUMMER, the final volume in the critically praised Seasonal Quartet of novels that she published between 2017 and 2020. Her new book, the modestly titled COMPANION PIECE, shares thematic and stylistic similarities with its four immediate predecessors, but it’s also a refreshingly original addition to her impressive and hard-to-pigeonhole body of work.

As I wrote in my review of SPRING, the third of the seasonal novels, Smith “manages to again tilt our everyday world at an angle that allows us to see it with fresh eyes.” Set mostly in 2021 England, COMPANION PIECE trains a jaundiced eye on a country that has moved on from Brexit, one of Smith’s preoccupations in the seasonal novels, but has endured the initial phase of COVID lockdowns and now faces an uncertain future.

"COMPANION PIECE’s elliptical, episodic structure won’t necessarily suit everyone’s taste, but those who share Smith’s concerns and appreciate her distinctive approach to fiction will be happy to find themselves again in her company."

This England remains a “a country of people in mourning gaslit by the constant pressure to act like it’s not a country of people in mourning,” as Smith describes it with her characteristic acerbic wit. Her protagonist, Sandy Gray, a middle-aged artist living in an unnamed town, alludes to a world in disarray, “featuring government spokespeople telling me, much like they were reciting advertising copy, how this country was number one, first in the world, listing the things it was first in the world at and telling me how the thousand or so people still dying in this country was something we had to just chum along with now.”

Sandy’s distress isn’t helped by the press of family obligations. Her father has been hospitalized for a heart-related condition, and she reluctantly has had to take custody of his “companionable” (or “companion able”) black Labrador. Her hospital visits are limited due to COVID restrictions, but Smith is less interested in their current predicament than she is in illuminating their relationship in a series of memories from Sandy.

Sandy admits that she’s been “pretending like the rest of us that everything was fine, if awful,” and her angst is only heightened by an unexpected telephone call she receives from Martina Inglis, someone she knew from their college days but considers less than an acquaintance. Martina, the assistant to a curator at an unnamed museum, describes how she inexplicably had been detained at the airport after returning to England in possession of the “Boothby lock,” an ingenious lock-and-key mechanism to a 16th-century baronial money chest.

Martina’s account takes an even more Kafkaesque turn when, in the course of her hours-long, interrogation-free detention, she thinks she overhears a conversation from an adjacent room in which someone says, “Curlew or curfew. You choose.” These words resurface through the balance of the novel, especially when the improbably long-beaked wading bird assumes a prominent role in a story Sandy shares with Martina that’s every bit as bizarre as the latter’s account of her inexplicable time in custody.

In it, Sandy describes a visit to her home by a mysterious young woman who was “high on something” or “learned her syntax off some old Poldark episode,” and is accompanied by the bird. It’s never made clear if this is an actual intrusion or, more likely, a vivid dream, but the story apparently is so unsettling to Martina that the emotional distress it supposedly triggers prompts repeated visits by her unusual twin daughters to Sandy’s home. The young women often speak in text abbreviations (“eye em oh” is a favorite), accuse Sandy of provoking their mother’s psychological problems, and threaten to vilify her on social media.

By this point in the novel, readers unfamiliar with Smith’s style or who lack a taste for the surreal may be growing a bit uneasy. But in its final quarter, Smith, who is expert at defying readers’ expectations, makes a radical turn, transporting them back several centuries to the time of an earlier plague in England to tell the story of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to the intruder of Sandy’s tale.

In this novella-length segment, Smith comes as close as she ever does to traditional plotting. She describes an orphaned teenager with a preternatural talent for blacksmithing, which arouses the ire of the men who control that society and subject her to both exile and cruel punishment. In Smith’s hands, the tale has a sensibility that’s both mythic and contemporary. But as Sandy reminds Martina’s daughters on one of their visits to her home, “A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.”

Smith’s trademarks --- a love of wordplay and language in general (like Sandy, who admits that “all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal loyal sidekick” and considers grammar “as bendy as a live green branch on a tree”), a fondness for impressionism over realism, and a structure that prefers loosely connected scenes to conventional narrative --- are all present here. Unlike her recent novels, Smith foregoes a deep exploration of the work of a single artist, but there are pleasing allusions to E.E. Cummings, Muriel Spark, William Blake, Dylan Thomas and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

But above all, as Sandy explains to one of Martina’s skeptical daughters, Smith’s writing is rooted in the belief that books are important because “they’re one of the ways we can imagine ourselves otherwise,” and with her customary elan she’s eager to help her readers achieve that goal. COMPANION PIECE’s elliptical, episodic structure won’t necessarily suit everyone’s taste, but those who share Smith’s concerns and appreciate her distinctive approach to fiction will be happy to find themselves again in her company.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 13, 2022

Companion Piece
by Ali Smith

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0593316371
  • ISBN-13: 9780593316375