Ali Smith: Companion Piece
Ali Smith’s immediate previous work to this novel was her four-part Seasons tetralogy, probably the pre-eminent piece of British fiction so far this century. One of the key features of this work was that the action took place in the period immediately preceding publication so that in one respect it was almost like a documentary on our times. Moreover, she was not averse to criticising the direction of political and social events of the time. As the title of this book implies, this book essentially carries on where the Seasons tetralogy left off and, indeed, we plunge straight into political critique. In 2021 two police officers were jailed for photographing and sharing the photos of two murdered sisters. This novel starts off with one of them arriving at the Gates of Hell. We will get plenty of further commentary on the Johnson government, immigration, violence against women, the discharge of raw sewage into rivers, the handling of the covid pandemic and other current topics. All of then are, I am afraid, accurate and not fictitious.
Our narrator is Sandy Gray. We do not definitively learn that she she is a woman till about half way through the book. We do know that she is single, bisexual and earns her living both as a not very commercially successful artist, painting poems, and from casual, clerical jobs. We first meet her during the covid lockdown and, like many people, she is not coping very well with it. Her father is eighty. Sandy seems to be his only child and her mother has died. We do know the marriage was not a particularly happy one and her parents had long since separated. Her father is critical of Sandy’s life.
Early on her father had a heart attack and, in another reference to current events, there was no ambulance available to take him to hospital so Sandy had to do so herself. He is not in good shape.
Sandy receives a phone call from Martina Pelf née Inglis. They had been at university together, reading English but had only once had any contact at university and none in the intervening thirty years. Their previous contact had been when Martina has been stuck on doing a project on this e e cummings poem. Indeed, she had not a clue what it was about. Sandy helps her find some meaning in it. You will notice, as did Sandy, that cummings introduces the letter H T A E D which, of course spell DEATH backwards. Death is a key theme in this book, from the Gates of Hell at the beginning to her father’s health already mentioned, as well as the covid deaths.
Now in the present – 2021 – Martina phones Sandy for the first time since that poetry discussion. It seems that she is now a museum curator and had been bringing back to the UK from a travelling exhibition a very rare and beautiful lock. She had been stopped at immigration because she had inadvertently submitted a non-UK passport – she has both a UK and non-UK passport. Immigration take away her passports and phone and lock her in a sealed room for seven hours. While she is there she studies the lock in detail but also hears a disembodied voice saying curlew or curfew and then later adding you choose. She is released but phones Sandy to see if she can explain the mysterious curlew or curfew. Sandy gives her some sort of interpretation, which she seems reasonably happy with. The curlew and curfew will reappear throughout the book.
However, a significant part of this novel takes place in the past. First a woman from the past breaks into Sandy’s house (with a curlew) and later we will follow her story. She seems to be from the late seventeenth century and we learn, from the story, how badly people were treated (e.g. vagabonds branded with a V) and, in particular how badly women were treated as we follow both her and another woman, Ann Shaklock, make a living as blacksmiths, when Ann’s father, the previous blacksmith, dies, not an easy thing for a woman to be accepted doing in that period.
Meanwhile back in 2021, we learn that Martina, after recounting her story to Sandy and receiving one in return, goes somewhat off the rails and her twin children, one female, one non-binary, blame Sandy and essentially move in on her, not least because their father does not accept his erstwhile daughter being non-binary.
There are lots of things going on in this novel, which make it so interesting, Firstly, as the title implies, it is an appendage to her Seasons tetralogy. Like those books, it is (mainly) set in the period in which the book was written. Like those books, we deal with a host of contemporary issues, many of which Smith is highly critical of, from the local library being turned into a block of flats to ambulances being delayed, from anti-maskers to government spokespeople telling me how the thousand or so people still dying in this country every week was something we had to just chum along with now and how generous our government was being to everybody in the country by paying out so much public money to government friends and donors.
It also deals very much with the treatment of women, both in the seventeenth century and nowadays. The men in this book do not come out well, from Sandy’s father criticising her chosen path in life to Martina’s husband bullying his non-binary child.
Language, as always, is key with Smith. She mocks the modern use of acronyms, as used by Eden, the female twin, who says, for example, double-you eff aitch, leaving us to work out that it is WFH. Plays on words, Sandy’s use of the language of poetry and Martina’s struggle with the language of the cummings poem and even the meaning of words, with a long explanation on the meaning and use of hello all add to Smith’s interest in language and how it is changing.
However, what is the key? The key is stories. Who tells these stories? Women. It is Sandy and the young woman and Ann Shaklock from the seventeenth century and Martina who tell us and each other stories, often fantastical stories from the Cottingley Fairies to the story of the locks and others. Linked to this fantasy world is the role of animals. The woman from the past has her curlew, which she rescues as a chick. Sandy’s father’s dog is key (a female, of course). Initially Sandy takes little care of her and things go wrong but she feels better when she develops a relationship with the dog, and they carry on a conversation about how humans can be evil but animals less so.
Once again with Ali Smith’s novels there is a lot more than meets the eye in this book. She remains, as I have said before, one of the foremost British writers of this century and has a wonderful eye for what is happening in our world but is not afraid to jump out of the conventional real word and explore the other side, which she does so well.
First published 2022 by Random House