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COMPANION PIECE, by Ali Smith
In a pandemic-ravaged and post-Brexit Britain, our narrator, Sandy Gray, who is anything but gray, character-wise, though in her present state of personal and political despondency she might well feel she is, receives an unexpected call from one Martina Pelf, formerly Martina Inglis, a university acquaintance who has recently been held for seven and a half hours at border control, an officer annoyed by her dual citizenship (“Is one country not enough for you?”), and Martina is calling to share this with Sandy, and to ask Sandy a question — and so begins Ali Smith’s 18th book, the superb novel “Companion Piece.”
Martina was held and questioned while transporting the centuries-old Boothby Lock for the museum where she works. “It’s really beautiful,” Martina tells Sandy. “It’s really cunning too. You could never tell by looking at it that it’s even a lock, or that it has any mechanism at all inside it, never mind find how or where the key goes into it to open it.” Which is, of course, a fine description of this novel, itself a lock, crafted by a smith, that is, by A. Smith, demanding in the engagement it requires, and rewarding of that engagement, as one picks away at the words she has used to build it.
Picking a lock of words is in fact why Martina has called Sandy, for while stuck alone in that room at border control she hears a mysterious voice. “Curlew or curfew,” it says, “you choose.” Martina is unable to stop thinking about this. What on earth can it mean? At home she lies in bed, perplexed. But she has no one she feels she can speak to. Her husband is, well, her husband, a term she uses in a way that makes Sandy suspect “some kind of marital inadequacy quarrel.” And as for her children: “One would laugh. The other would call me a cis terf, which apparently I am.”
So Martina has turned to Sandy. “You were really good at sounding like you knew what a line of poetry meant,” Martina says. “You just knew what things meant.” And Sandy, surprised, and a bit suspicious, does not disappoint. “There’s a choice,” she tells Martina, puzzling it over, immersing herself. “A curlew is a bird, and a curfew is a time of day after which people officially aren’t, by authority, permitted to be out and about.” She goes on, feeling her way in. “And if we think about the proffered choice, curlew or curfew, between nature and an authoritarian shaping of time, which is a human invention. …” Martina stops her, pleased. “You haven’t changed a bit,” she says to Sandy. And Sandy blushes without, she tells us, knowing why.
Curlew or curfew. You choose. From these words arises the structure of the novel, which is divided into three parts. In the first, titled “You Choose,” Sandy is grappling with despair. Her father is ill. The whole world, it seems, is ill too. The disease is not only Covid: A sickness of hatred and injustice and oppression is spreading everywhere. “I didn’t care what season it was,” Sandy tells us. Smith’s previous four novels were a quartet named after the seasons, and we hear Smith in Sandy as she continues, “all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal loyal sidekick.” But now, “even words and everything they could and couldn’t do” are repugnant. Sandy is an artist who is losing, in a harsh epoch, her faith in the power of art.
But the story of the lock has unlocked something in Sandy, she realizes, and her thoughts are borne back in time: to hours ago, years ago, decades ago. She recalls university, where she went out with people of both genders, which “was seen as deeply dodgy, then, though not quite as dodgy as just being gay which is what I probably was/am,” and where she encountered a young Martina, stumped by a poem and desperate, desperate for help, for something. As Sandy emerges from these reveries, on a walk in the forest, she realizes she’s lost: numb, alone, with no idea where to go. But she feels, suddenly, that she has a choice. “What I knew was my own absence. What I sensed, clear as unruined air, was the ghost of a chance, a different presence.”
The second part of the novel, called “Curlew,” takes as its recurrent theme freedom, and as its motif the V that is formed when we make our simplest drawings of a bird. The title of each of its sections (“Goodbye v hello,” “Story v lies”) explores the winged possibilities of a juxtaposition. And in these sections we learn that Martina has disappeared after speaking with Sandy, that Martina’s children think Sandy is having an affair with their mother, that they feel Sandy has destroyed their family, that they are adrift, and that they believe she bears some responsibility for their unmooring. They arrive at her home like refugees, and Sandy, who wants them gone, does not have it in her to force them away, and so they begin to occupy, they stay. They take refuge. “So what if something or someone happened to mess with or ruin a picture I’d been working on for over a year?” Sandy muses, considering these refugees, in one of the breathtakingly radical passages that flash so brightly in this radical book. “There’d always be more paint. I could start again.”
In “You Choose,” we are left with “the ghost of a chance,” and in “Curlew,” a ghost indeed appears, in the form of a strange girl with a curlew who turns up in Sandy’s house. We learn who she may have been in the final part of the novel, “Curfew,” which grapples with the restrictions we place on one another. It recounts, in part, the tale of a girl who is possibly connected to the making of the Boothby Lock and is apprenticed to a smith in the distant past. The smith is an older woman who owns a forge and is superb at her work, but who dies suddenly, leaving the talented girl vulnerable to men who want the forge for themselves. A baby bird keeps her company through the horrors the world has in store for her. She is eventually arrested and marked as a vagrant: A brand of the letter V, a brand the girl herself had once made, is heated and seared into her flesh. This was a mandated punishment in those days, for the poor were not allowed to wander as they wished in Britain: Labor was kept immobile by law, registered and tethered to a place, much as poor people from the Global South are registered and kept tethered today. But the girl, now branded, wanders on. She is not forsaken by her bird.
“I’m not going to tell you what happened in the end to the girl,” our narrator informs us, “except that she went the way of all girls.” And, back in the present day, Sandy, out walking her father’s dog, her father better though still in the hospital, meets a girl on a bicycle who used to encounter Sandy’s father on his daily dog walks. The girl asks after him and “heads off swift as a swift.” But then she stops and turns. She sees Sandy. And she calls out to her, a hello. A hello stunning, at the end of this remarkable novel, in its hopefulness and possibility.
Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, “The Last White Man,” will be published this summer.
COMPANION PIECE | By Ali Smith | 230 pp. | Pantheon Books. | $28.