Companion Piece by Ali Smith is about truth, the telling of stories, real stories, fake stories, fairy stories, perceived truth and real truth, and how language and data can be used and abused. Smith tackles some of the biggest issues facing society today, not so much providing answers but making us ask questions about life and the modern concept of ‘truth.’ A ‘companion’ novella to Smith’s lockdown-themed Seasonal Quartet, Companion Piece sings from the beginning. Twining together present and past stories, two motifs run throughout. ‘Curfew,’ the idea of restriction of physical movement, on access and egress, the feeling of being constrained and the invasion of our space. And ‘curlew’, the freedom of nature, the bird’s odd-shaped bill, a reminder that there is room in nature for things that don’t quite fit the norm, the ever presence of wildlife whatever happens in the human world, the familiar pattern of a bird’s day, of nature’s life cycle and therefore also of ours.
Artist Sandy is struggling during lockdown to distance-visit her sick father who is in hospital. She must stay isolated and free of the virus so she doesn’t prejudice his health and is accompanied only by Shep, her father’s dog. Into this closed world comes Martina, an acquaintance from university many decades since, who telephones with an odd tale concerning an incident at border control when she recently returned to the UK with the Boothby lock (a medieval artefact for which Martina is responsible). Held in an immigration detention room, she hears (or imagine she hears) a mysterious message – ‘Curlew or curfew.’ Martina wants Sandy’s advice to decipher the message, as Sandy is good at words. Sandy, who barely remembers Martina, tries to help while simultaneously trying to end the call. There are flashbacks to their university days, to Sandy’s childhood.
Then Sandy’s peaceful isolation is shattered by the arrival on her doorstep of Martina’s twin daughters, Lea and Eden, whose speech is littered with text-speak abbreviations. They dismiss Sandy’s concerns about covid distancing and accuse her of upsetting their mother who is acting strangely and is changing information about historical artefacts in the digital database at work.
The second story (whether it is told by Sandy is unclear, like many things in this book) set in another pandemic, this time the Black Death. An unnamed young girl, a blacksmith’s apprentice, is lying in a ditch after being attacked by men. There she meets a curlew chick, an ungainly beautiful bird she begins to care for. As people around her die of plague, she remembers the stories told to her by the blacksmith Ann Shaklock and these help her to survive.
Any novel by such an experimental writer as Smith needs to be read with a loosening of expectations, acceptance of the abandonment of normal commercial fiction norms. Passages are beautifully written but incomprehensible, others are simple and sweet, some made me laugh out loud. Punctuation, speech marks, forget about them all and sink into the story of Sandy the artist who paints words layered on top of words.
Don’t expect answers at the end. As Sandy says, ‘A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.’ It is a plea for us all to ask more questions, to not simply believe what we are told but to analyse and strip back stories in order to separate fact from fiction, fake news from truth.
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