Ali Smith is done. After documenting the absurdities and banalities, horrors and fleeting joys of British life since the EU referendum in her Seasonal Quartet, I imagine her putting down the pen with a sigh. Only to pick it up again almost immediately because the world isn’t done throwing up interesting times, and there’s a pandemic to write about (which Smith admittedly did squeeze, rather optimistically, into the framing device of Summer). “I was past caring,” she has her narrator Sand say in Companion Piece, channeling a global mood:
everything had changed, and though on the surface I’d kept myself going particularly by pretending like the rest of us that everything was fine, if awful, in fact so much had shifted that I was pretty sure I wasn’t the person I’d once been.
She’s even done with wordplay!
Everything was mulch about mulchness to me right then. 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.
Ali Smith without wordplay?! It’s a warning shot not to expect more of the same, and indeed Companion Piece is a fittingly grim and anxious hunt for a sounding in the seeming depthlessness of our times. It stands alone but alongside the Seasonal Quartet, as the title playfully suggests.
It’s 2021 and the UK is out of lockdown but people are still dying in their hundreds (through a weird warping of space-time it happens that Australia is living through pretty much this exact scenario right now). Sand, an artist who supports herself with contract work, has confined herself to her house. Her father has taken ill (not COVID) and is in hospital; Sand can only visit if she remains negative. Then she receives a call from someone she’s almost forgotten, Martina Pelf, who she went to university with and once coached through an assignment on e e cummings (“He’d supported McCarthy and the US witch-hunts,” Sand deadpans later).
Martina, now a curator for a prestigious museum, was returning to the UK with an exquisitely made Medieval lock in her carry-on, when she ran into a spot of signature Smithian border trouble. She’s locked in a room for seven hours:
There was … no inside handle on the door and the door could not be coaxed open by any scrabbling at its sides; there were scratch signs and little gouges at its foot and along its edge from people’s past attempts at this.
It’s a reminder that you don’t need detention centres or border patrol to make a person feel utterly powerless. The trouble for Martina comes to nothing, because state violence is arbitrary, taken away as soon as it is performed, that’s the point, but while inside she has some kind of epiphany. She hears a voice, with an offer, a prayer, maybe it’s a curse: “curlew or curfew. You choose.”
So in the event Companion Piece does come back to wordplay. Phew! Like the strangeness of that phrase, strange things begin to happen to Sand. Martina’s family becomes increasingly entangled in Sand’s life, seeking refuge in her house (from what? The book is all the better for not answering) against her wishes. A young woman with a curlew for a companion breaks in; she may not be from our time. The book splits off in wild directions like an atomic nucleus under bombardment.
More than any of the Seasonal Quartet, Companion Piece feels restless and untethered, because we are all at sea in the new reality and we can’t know where we’re going to land. It feels like an act of creation and destruction, the snake eating its tail. Throughout Smith dives even more deeply into the power of words and story, and comes up unsure what she’s found. She turns even further to the past than she has before in the Seasonal Quartet, searching for origins, the things “we are today on the surface of”. Smith induces wonder and fascination, as she digresses on etymologies and hidden histories, tales of Medieval women metal workers during plague times and their treatment that still haunt us today. There are generational anxieties: Zoomer kids say “ok boomer”; Martina confesses her nonbinary child would call her a “cis terf”. Of course it is also about friendship, but even here Smith seems uncertain about whether such relationships can navigate the line between nurture and exploitation. Play – with words, with objects – has been serious and central to Smith’s recent novels, and here she’s asking, without knowing the answer, can we be playful again?
It’s not without its frustrations. It is inevitably a sometimes uneven read. The sentimentality, particularly between Sand and her father, feels strained. The age of Martina’s daughter Eden age feels slippery and indeterminate. But Companion Piece is never less than fascinating and urgent, and at its maddest, which is often, it is as sublime as anything else Smith has written.
Gay rating: 3/5 for queer characters.