Companion Piece is a fitting title for Ali Smith’s12th novel, her first after the extraordinary Seasonal Quartet. que ayudé al padre de un amigo a hacer unas “antigüedades” nuevas que vendía en su tienda, it is about as real-time as novels get, set in the heart of lockdown in “this land of union-jack-the-lads in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty one”. It feels as if Smith so enjoyed the breakneck speed of writing her quartet that she has produced this: a companion piece. Even the (beautiful) David Hockney cover looks like it was designed to sit on a shelf next to the Quartet.
There’s another kind of companionship going on here, también. Me gusta How to Be Both (2014), Companion Piece is in two parts, with the longer, contemporary first section acting as a precursor to a scintillating story-within-a-story set in the time of the Black Death. The two parts of the novel reflect upon and enlarge each other, collapsing time and illustrating the way that problems we think of as being very much of our era – pandemic preparedness, gender identity, workplace equality – are rooted deeply in our collective histories.
We begin with Sandy, an artist struggling through lockdown. Her father is in hospital after a heart attack and she has only his dog for company. She visits her father when she can and relies on the kindness of a nurse who keeps her informed of his progress. Sandy is just about holding things together when a figure from her past appears: Martina Pelf. Martina had ignored her at university, but now she calls wanting Sandy’s advice. She begins a tale that turns around a powerfully freighted object: the “Boothby Lock”, a (fictional) artefact that Martina, in her role as the assistant to a museum curator, has just brought back from her travels.
Martina tells Sandy that on returning to the UK, she was seized by customs officers – the kind of shadowy bureaucrats who have become a staple of Smith’s fiction. Locked in a padded, windowless room, Martina heard a voice whispering to her, enigmatically: "Curlew or Curfew. You choose.” Martina wants to know what this means, what the story is behind it, and Sandy is good at stories. Sandy’s artistic practice involves “layer-painting” poems, superimposing image upon image to reflect the way a poem builds up line over line. It feels like a metaphor for the way Smith constructs her novels, with scenes and stories accreting over time, generating a vast but insidious power.
The tale-within-a-tale at the end of the novel can be understood as Sandy’s response to the original challenge presented by Martina: a story to explain the strange voice in the cell. We meet a young girl, one-time apprentice to Ann Shaklock, the town blacksmith. Now Ann is dead and the girl is lying in a ditch after being attacked by a gang of men. Allí, at her lowest ebb, she finds a curlew chick: “the wildest of all birds, completely untameable”. She cares for it, this strange creature with its curved bill as if “God kept going with the pen to see how long a beak He could get away with.” There is a curfew in the plague-ravaged town and the girl finds herself drawn to a group of travelling players. She remembers stories that Ann told her, and these help her to survive in a world in which she is even more vulnerable than the curlew chick that she has been caring for. We come to understand that there is a connection between the young orphaned girl and the Boothby Lock, a pesar de que, as Sandy says, “a story is never an answer. A story is always a question.” The reader is left with many questions at the end, but that feels like one of the points of the book. Companion Piece, like life, is messy, gracioso, triste, beautiful and mysterious.