‘Companion Piece’, by Ali Smith

Like the centuries-old lock at the heart of the novel, Companion Piece is a masterfully crafted puzzle for the reader to unpick. Part mystery, part modern commentary and part meditation on companionship, Ali Smith’s follow-up to her Seasonal Quartet takes the reader on a dizzying whirlwind through mythology, history, and the claustrophobic nature of life during the Covid pandemic.

Three-headed Cerberus, guarding the entrance to the underworld, welcomes us into the novel with a ‘’Ello, ’ello, ’ello, what’s this then?’, his mocking imitation of a ‘good old British bobby’. The policeman being addressed has just crossed the River Styx and is now showing off selfies of himself posing with dead bodies to the disinterested beast. 

This imagined encounter between Cerberus and the policeman has its roots in real-life events, and this blend of farce and tragedy resonates throughout the novel as a whole and frames many of the discussions of contemporary events as seen through the eyes of our protagonist Sand. ‘What a lifestyle thing life has become’, she muses to herself during the long wait for news of her ill father.  

The character of Sand embodies the widespread dissociation and isolation felt by many during Covid. She lives alone and, though she has the opportunity for some form of companionship in the form of her father’s dog, Shep, her frame of mind at the beginning of the novel doesn’t allow her to recognise this:  

Everything was mulch of a 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 […]

Thankfully for the reader, Ali Smith is a wordsmith who has not lost her love of language; in fact, her playful and masterful use of words is one of the true joys of this novel. Sand – Shifting Sands, as she is known by an old schoolmate – is jolted from her isolation by a phone call from this same acquaintance who proceeds to relate a bizarre story about being detained by airport security as she was travelling for work with the Boothby Lock, a priceless early modern artefact.

Martina Pelf is kept in a tiny, windowless room for seven and a half hours. After doing everything she can to occupy the time, she finally decides to take the Boothby Lock out of its protective packaging to have a better look. It is a masterpiece of metalwork, so realistic that the tendrils of intricately carved ivy almost seem alive as she inspects them. It is at this point her need for the toilet reasserts itself and she has just begun pacing the empty room once more when a voice tells her: ‘Curlew or curfew. You choose.’

The odd message plays on Martina’s mind when she is ultimately released and she soon convinces herself that the only person who might be able to shed some light is her old classmate from twenty years before, who was always able to decode complex poems and literature. ‘Someone like Sand’ll know what it means’, she thinks. Sand is, understandably, bewildered by the out-of-the-blue phone call from Martina but, as the days pass, the lock and the words begin to occupy her thoughts: ‘Something about the story of that old lock mechanism had unlocked something me.’

So begins the end of Sand’s isolation as she is dragged unwillingly into the mystery of curlews or curfews and, despite her best efforts, the relationships of the overbearing Pelf family who proceed to barge their way into her house and her life without thought for the virus, or Sand’s father who is in hospital recovering from a heart attack.

As the novel progresses, we are soon introduced to the narrative ‘companion piece’ to Sand’s arc. In the days of the bubonic plague, a young girl with an unspecified link to the Boothby Lock is an apprentice to the town’s female blacksmith, Ann Shaklock, before both Ann and her husband die of the ‘sickness’. The girl, left alone and vulnerable, is soon run out of town.

While living in the wilderness, the girl finds a tiny curlew all alone and the two develop a bond. Sometimes the bird returns to its own kind, and at other times the girl returns to the human world of towns and villages. The curlew and curfew of the mysterious message find their origin here – the curlew is the girl’s precious companion and a symbol of freedom, while the curfew represents the rules and order of the towns she visits. These rules are sometimes underlined by brutality and harsh restrictions on personal freedom (it has become illegal to freely wander from town to town, and those who do so are branded as vagrants) reminiscent of the strict government control during the pandemic of our own times.  

In the end, the author does not tell us what happens to the bird and the girl:

Does the bird still follow her at the safe distance through the summer months when she’s in the more peopled world? or does it happily slip away at last into the world of other birds?
     Does she leave the peopled world in the colder months to go and stand on a strand where the birds like her bird are congregated, to see if there’s one that’ll lift its head, turn its head, step out of the company and come towards her, fearless?

You choose. As Sand explains to Martina, ‘A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.’

In Companion Piece, Ali Smith masterfully captures the confusion, absurdity and tragedy of a confusing age. An experiment in writing in (almost) real time, the characters of Sand, her father, and Martina share the chaos of contemporary life with the reader in a way that few other novels are able. And though it may not offer answers, it does offer some hope in the joy and comfort of companionship. One morning, Sand realises that she has not been offering any of this to her father’s dog and finally takes Shep on a walk to the park where a stranger offers her a simple greeting and we are reminded of an earlier chapter on the complicated, dazzling origins and significance of the humble ‘hello’. 

Every hello, like every voice, holds its story ready, waiting.

Companion Piece is published by Hamish Hamilton

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Lauren Murray

Lauren Murray holds a PhD in Classics from the University of Edinburgh. She now works as an editor for HarperCollins.

More articles by Lauren Murray


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