Ali Smith

Companion Piece

Hamish Hamilton, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

FEW novelists are more in thrall to the potential of storytelling than Ali Smith, whose career began with short stories, and whose novels are a cobweb of tales within a tale. In Companion Piece – the title perhaps a nod to the Vivaldian seasons quartet it follows – the plot is filigreed with individual and collective stories, each a nugget that, in Smith’s world, is as precious as gold.

Not that these, or the novel itself, are conventional plots, with a beginning, middle and end. As in almost all her previous work Smith tinkers with time, bringing the past into the present, as if that’s where it belongs, and leaving us guessing the outcome for her characters. Of the mysterious historical figure in Companion Piece, she writes: “I’m not going to tell you what happened in the end to the girl, except that she went the way of all girls.” It’s a line that carries a distinct echo of Muriel Spark, whose originality and mischief she shares.

In Companion Piece the past arrives in various shapes. First, there is a phone call to the narrator, an artist called Sandy (another nod to Muriel Spark). “In this land of union-jacks-the-lads in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty one” an old school mate rings her out of the blue. Sandy and Martina were never friends, yet now, in their mid-fifties, they reconnect because Martina has a puzzle that only Sandy can solve.

Entrusted to bring back to England a rare medieval metal lock and key for a forthcoming museum exhibition, Martina was detained on her way through customs. Left in a windowless room for seven hours, with nothing for company but the exquisitely-wrought lock, she heard a voice saying either “curlew or curfew”. What does it mean?

Sandy, as a youngster, was renowned for understanding poetry and untangling riddles. At the end of the call, she is left to wonder what difference a consonant makes to the message received.

Divided into three parts, titled You Choose, Curfew and Curlew, Companion Piece stretches in many directions: metaphysical, artistic, political and personal. Holding it together is the fate of Sandy’s elderly father, who has been taken into hospital. He is not suffering from Covid, but from heart problems, and is in a state his nurse describes as “touch and go”.

In his absence, Sandy looks after his dog, which she finds companionable. In these germ-laden times, however, you can have too much company, as she discovers when Martina’s terrible twins, Eva and Lea, arrive on her doorstep. First they denounce her for leading her mother astray. Then they move in, with mother and younger sister in tow. Terrified of contracting the virus and passing it on to her father, Sandy escapes to his house. And it is there that she finds a stranger, whose presence explains everything.

Little older than a girl, she is filthy, with a burn on her neck. Making herself at home, she offers to mend pots, kettles and knives. That’s strange enough, but even odder is the curlew that sits on her shoulder. Its beak “looks like God kept going with the pen to see how long a beak He could get away with.” When the girl flings a clock out of the window, it smashes then reassembles itself, cracked but whole. There, in a single image, is the liberating concept of time as something that can be shattered and put back together, not a fixed law that pins everything eternally in one place.

So peculiar, so Ali Smith, you might say. And if, like me, this is the sort of thing you like, then Companion Piece will be a treat. Not that it is unalloyed pleasure. Much of it is a state-of-the-nation commentary, tugging the imagination, conscience and heartstrings. With every book, Smith’s voice grows more beguiling and powerful. Underpinned by rage, bemusement and humour, her stories take on the world from unexpected angles. In so doing they offer startling illumination.

As with the novels Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer, everyday affairs thicken the air her narrator breathes: “I’d heard how some refugees who’d arrived in this country God knows how against all the odds were now being housed in the real cells of an old decrepit prison that had been being used till then as a sort of visit-a-prison theme park…”

But this is not merely a reprise of recent shocking events, of a society where violence, cruelty and neglect are as pervasive as coronavirus. The intruder, with her curlew, is pivotal, a presence who captures what it is to be a woman and artist, and the price some have paid for insisting on being free. Added to which, notions of plague, and the toll it takes, today and in previous ages, hover over every page.

Although it is a gimlet-eyed record of our times, Companion Piece is no dirge. Smith’s talent is to infuse dread and despair with visions of better days, and possibilities of positive change. At its core is the worth and fragility of every living thing.

We learn that Sandy’s strange intruder first encountered her curlew when it was a trusting chick: “when she holds it in her arms she can feel its bones so thin that the pain that’s unlike any other pain happens in her chest. This is the pain of the thought of something painful happening to another being. This is pain sensed or the thought of it happening in another body by the body of the person not feeling that same pain but feeling this thing that’s both pain and unlike pain instead.”

That feeling stands as a summation of Smith’s perspective, and the emotions her work inspires. As her narrator irritably tells Martina and the twins, who seem to think she can help them find themselves, “a story is never an answer. A story is always a question.”

Companion Piece is like the ancient lock with which it began: turning the key is only the beginning of understanding. Smith’s bountiful allusions, references, and subtle connections require more than one reading for their full meaning to emerge. A deceptively slender novel, where every line is freighted, it is like the lock when it was hammered into shape. Forged in a blazing heat, tempered by skill, it is an impressive work of art.