Title: Companion Piece
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (7 April 2022)
Length: 227 pages
Medium: Hardback from library
Goodreads | Storygraph

Ok, hear me out on this review. It’s a longer one than usual, but I think that’s needed to do Companion Piece justice. It’s the kind of book that almost defies description – I’m going to do my best!

What actually happens?

This story follows an artist – Sandy – who makes a living painting pictures made up of the words of poems. It is 2021, and Sandy’s father has just been hospitalised for heart problems. The COVID pandemic has made this even more difficult than it would otherwise be. A shortage of ambulance drivers meant that Sandy had to drive him to the hospital herself, their communication is mainly over video calls with him masked at the other end, and Sandy is attempting to isolate so that there’s less risk of her infecting her father when she is allowed to visit.

The story kicks off when an old acquaintance from Sandy’s college years – Martina Pelf – calls her up out of the blue. Martina, now a museum curator, recounts a tale about how she was held up for seven hours in customs while transporting a precious lock and key device for her museum, and heard a strange voice coming through the walls while she was held in isolation.

So that’s quite weird – but it gets weirder…

Sandy’s house goes on to be invaded by Martina’s family – first her twin children, who claim that Sandy has made their mother go off the rails since they spoke, then Martina herself. Given the virus and Sandy’s desire to isolate, this is all rather problematic, and the story continues from there.

What’s it like to read?

There’s a lot in this book that teeters on the absurd and a lot that feels more satirical than real – in fact Sandy at one point comments that it feels like she’s in a satire.

Half way through, for example, Martina begs Sandy to tell her a story, and Sandy gives an account of finding a ragged and branded girl – clearly from some distant past – breaking into her house. Despite Martina’s expectations that this story is made up, Sandy maintains it is absolutely true. Then, later in the book, the narrative shifts to this girl’s time period, in the late seventeenth century, during plague years, where she attempts (despite the prejudices of the time) to become a blacksmith.

It’s not the only jump in time and space that we have in this novel. In the first section, scenes are shown between Sandy and her father, going increasingly further back in time, showing the strain of their relationship. There’s also a vignette about Sandy’s mother, now deceased, when she was a child in Ireland, trying to find a doctor in time to save her sister. Not to mention the opening scene which is set at the gates of Hell…!

This book is really different from what I usually read. The fragmentary nature of the narrative, skipping through time periods and from the realistic to the imaginary and back again made the reading experience feel less like the normal one (following characters through a series of events to a conclusion), and more like the experience of reading a poem or looking at a painting. Like you’re unwinding meaning from a series of beautiful but slightly confusing images, piecing it together, building it up… in fact, much like the poem-paintings created by the narrator.

There’s a lot to unpack in this book – a lot of variation in place and time and situation, and a lot of Ali Smith’s signature wordplay, with an entire section for example on the origin and meaning of the word ‘hello’. As I read, I knew I wasn’t understanding every bit of it. But the thing is, I didn’t need to. I let it wash over me, enjoying the fun and the artistry, and ended up surprised by how very much I enjoyed it.

It’s complex, yes, but it’s not dense or pedantic. Despite dealing with difficult themes (such as death, the pandemic, the political response to the pandemic, feelings of isolation, illness, a child coming out as non-binary and not being accepted by their parent, and the treatment of women in the past and present) the witty narrative has an overarching sense of fun and silliness.

I particularly enjoyed the exchanges between Sandy and the Pelf twins. The latter are infuriatingly but hilariously insensitive to Sandy’s anxiety around COVID transmission…

Why are you wearing that mask? she said.
Because there’s a pandemic, I said.
There’s more to life than just this boring pandemic. Masks really upset me. Seeing people wear them has a negative effect on my mental health, Aren’t you going to take it off? Now that you’ve seen it’s just me?

…and endearingly fond of acronyms (double-you eff aitch, says the female twin for example, meaning ‘work from home’). These scenes are delightful – light and funny, dissecting serious topics by poking them with gentle fun.

So what’s the point of it all?

There is so much artistry in this book. I know I didn’t see all of it, but what I did see really moved me.

Because it was written and published so quickly (the story happening in 2021 and being published April 2022), the narrative is able to look at the world in real time, while also, through its wild sweeps back into the past, seeing the issues of the present through the lens of history.

This common is the town’s plague pit, where they mass-buried their dead seven hundred, six hundred, five hundred years ago. Here we are today on the surface of things.

Themes like illness, acceptance (and the lack of it), isolation, death and companionship are seen up close in the present, and far away in history. The seeming unimportance of individual lives when they are obscured either by time or by sheer numbers is beautifully railed against in possibly my favourite quote of the whole piece:

No history was ever going to think it worth recording never mind bowing its head even momentarily to the deaths and fragilities of any of the millions and millions and millions of individual people, with their detailed generic joyful elegiac fruitful wasted nourishing undernourished common individual lives, who were suffering or dying right now or had died over the past year and a half in what was after all just the latest plague and whose gone souls swirled invisible in shifting murmurations above every everyday day that we wandered around in, below these figurations, full of what we imagined was purpose.
What is there to say to that loss?

…though it’s closely followed by this one, about the cyclical nature of the world and human experience, down through the years:

One thing can become another. They say a soul is a fixed thing and can’t be changed. But all things can change or be changed, by hands and elements. Old horseshoes will be melted to make new horseshoes. Weapons into tools for the fields instead. Tools for the field into weapons again.

There were so very many moments and snippets of imagery in this book that made me step back and think, and I’m going to need to stop myself from typing out all of them for fear this review gets unreasonably long.

This is a book that I know I’m going to need to return to, and that I’m sure I will get even more out of on a second read. It’s not your usual plot or even character driven story, but if you’re willing to try something a little different, a little absurd and satirical and fragmentary, something wildly poignant and effortlessly humane, I’d really recommend going in with an open mind and giving it a try.