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'Companion Piece' connects two plagues and two female artists five centuries apart


In her latest novel, wordsmith nonpareil Ali Smith once again shows herself to be a master of forging inventive connections. Companion Piece helps us see our world in a different light by finding points of contact between two plagues and two female artists, five centuries apart.

Smith's 11th novel is most similar to her award-winning literary diptych, How To Be Both (2014), in which she paired a 15th century gender-bending Italian artist who died young of the plague with a contemporary teen's grief over the untimely death of her mother, a brilliant economic journalist. This time around, she features a middle-aged painter who layers the words of poems onto canvases (akin to the way Smith builds layers of meaning in her novels), and a gifted 16th century blacksmith and metalworker who is brutalized for attempting to ply her trade as a girl.

Companion Piece is also in line with Smith's recent Seasonal Quartet, written in real time, incorporating current events such as Covid lockdowns, and sharing this engaged and engaging author's overarching concerns with grief, human warmth, cruelty, language, and art. Ever intent on expanding our understanding of others and the world we share, Smith's work is brainy and moving, thoughtful and playful — and never irrelevant.

But timely though her work may be, Smith is not one to eschew the long view: History matters to her, and so do artists and artisans from the past — almost as much as words. Companion Piece is, among other things, a passionate paean to books, which Smith's narrator, Sandy Gray, insists are important not just because they're pleasurable, but "because they're one of the ways we can imagine ourselves otherwise."

When we meet her, Sandy is frustratingly barred from visiting her father, recently hospitalized after a severe heart attack, because of Covid restrictions. While anxiously awaiting updates from his nurse, she receives a call from a woman she barely knew at college. This virtual stranger, Martina, launches into a strange story about being locked up by brutish airport agents in a windowless room upon her return from a work trip abroad to transport a priceless museum artifact, the intricate (and fictional) 16th century Boothby Lock. During her seven-and-a-half hour incarceration, Martina hears strange voices saying "Curfew or Curlew. You choose."

She has called Sandy because she thought that if anyone could figure out the meaning of this baffling message, it might be the classmate who had helped her parse an e.e. cummings poem that had completely flummoxed her. "You just knew what things meant. Generally," Martina tells Sandy.

About that e.e. cummings poem: Sandy's undergraduate exegesis offers a key to Smith's not always transparent novels: "Just look at the words. They'll tell you what they mean. Because it's what words do," she encourages Martina — and readers. Sandy points out that what looks like a random cascade of letters urges us to "trust meaninglessness." The poem, she says, with its anagram for DEATH, suggests that "there's a way to be playful even in times of really terrible doubt."

One of Smith's great gifts as a writer is verbal playfulness — a joy of lex — even in dark times. Sandy's clever riffs on the possible implications of curfew versus curlew again drive home this point: "The thinking game...There's always a payoff one way or another." One pertinent association with the curlews' long beaks are the plague masks people wore centuries ago to keep germs at a distance.

Smith's wit takes flight when Sandy's home is invaded by Martina's twin daughters, who accuse her of having seduced their mother. One girl speaks in text shorthand, hilarious when transliterated as "eye em oh" and "double you eff aitch." The absurd situation escalates amid miscommunications and delightful verbal sparring. When Sandy, fearful of becoming infected and not being able to visit her father, asks anxiously if the twins have masks, they reply, "Absolutely not....We've nothing to hide."

At another point, Sandy, nicknamed Shifting Sands at college because of her bisexuality, earnestly attempts to connect with the twin named Lea over her T-shirt, on which is scrawled "they/them":

"It's one of this era's real revolutions. And one of the most exciting things about language, that grammar's as bendy as a live green branch on a tree. Because if words are alive to us then meaning's alive, and if grammar's alive then the connection in it, rather than the divisions in us, will be energizing everything, one way or another. It means an individual person can be both individual and plural at the same time. And I've always believed there's real room to move in embracing the indeterminate."

But Lea cuts her flat: "Actually, I'm very determined...And in my usage it's a singular they. It's to signal that gender is irrelevant to me. It's to cancel the binary."

By exploring binaries such as imagination versus reality, surface versus depth, real versus fake, and stories versus lies — with their often blurred boundaries — Companion Piece challenges readers to embrace the indeterminate. Smith, on fire, welds so many elements into this short novel — including Sandy's dreams and childhood memories and the terrible ordeals of a talented, steely 16th century waif — that the result is as intricate as that artisanal lock.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.