Companion Piece by Ali Smith

I loved this book. With all the hallmarks of Ali Smith – word play, interpretive attention, great dialogue, a sense of shifting times and a re envisioned female history – Companion Piece felt exactly like its title; it offered a sense of companionship, a book that stretches out its hand in greeting to its reader. I wouldn’t say that I’m naturally drawn to reading fiction that deals head on with the pandemic, but this novel somehow achieves a straightforward depiction that tugs at the sense of unmooring it unleashed without trying to offer the kind of historical perspective it would be very hard to give when we are still enmeshed in its effects.

Everyone comes to Sandy for stories, for interpretations. As she worries about her hospitalised father to get better, occasionally able to visit, often speaking to him through the internet with kind nurses holding up a screen in the hospital where her father was lucky enough to get a bed in a cupboard, an old acquaintance from university rings her up out of the blue. Sandy has to stretch her memory to unearth this acquaintance who once came to her for her interpreting an e. e. cummings’ poem. Martina has called her because she can think of no one else able to untangle her recent experience as she was transporting the famous Boothby Lock to the museum she works for.

I’m not going to say more about the storyline because it would spoil the book, but the conversation between Sandy and Martina, unwanted as it is by Sandy, sparks a sudden flurry of communication from Martina’s whole family, all seeking answers from Sandy. 

Conversation, communion, voices speaking across times and through different means sits at the heart of the novel. It’s as if a whole series of these voices waves up at the reader and forces Sandy out of isolation (though she does have to insist on a new isolation in order to be able to see her father again). She starts to communicate differently and not just with humans, but with her father’s dog too. 

When her father first goes to hospital he is worried about the lady he says hello to every morning when he walks the dog. Sandy thinks he’s crazy, but that is where the heart of the book lies, in companionship, in the simple kindness of a hello. 

This is a gentle and kind book offering all the most magical gifts of story and it felt like a thank you as well as a reaching out. The book says hello, and I’m very happy to say hello back. It is a touching, grateful, hopeful book that still believes in the power of words and voices to create democratic meaning. This isn’t a book that imposes, it suggests, it questions, it revels in multiple possibilities of interpretation. It’s a real joy to read. 

I’ll be reviewing Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata next.