“Companion Piece” by Ali Smith is, broadly, a book about a middle-aged woman, Sand, living during the COVID-19 pandemic, whose father gets sick and is in the hospital. But to reduce it to plot would be to miss most of the novel and just leave you feeling confused. Instead, like a poem, Smith’s work is just as much (and maybe more) about form and language as it is about the events that transpire. The way the book crafts itself into a story is what really matters.
During a flashback early in “Companion Piece,” Sand and a classmate try to puzzle out the meaning of the e.e. cummings poem “to start,to hesitate;to stop.” Much like Sand’s classmate, I was stumped by this poem; I read it and reread it, and, though I enjoyed the sounds it made, I wasn’t getting any meaning from it; it just bounced around inside my head. If this were an assignment for an English class, I would follow Sand’s advice: “Anyone can say pretty much anything they like about e.e. cummings and it’ll probably be a bit true.” But this was a poem in a book I had chosen to read, and one that Smith decided to print in full within the text of her own novel, so I read on. Over the following pages, Smith traces the contours of Sand and her classmate’s conversation about the poem, which reads like a pared-down transcript of a poetry workshop. The meaning of the poem — or, I should say, one meaning of the poem — is slowly fleshed out, taking shape and building through the characters’ fruitful back-and-forth.
“Companion Piece” as a whole works much like this smaller moment. It doesn’t outright explain itself, but instead, it reveals itself in bits and pieces over time. I would read something and think, why am I supposed to care about this? and fifty pages later, I’d finally get it. Smith spends several pages talking about the etymology of the word “hello,” and Sand’s father repeatedly and seemingly nonsensically mentions a woman on a bike; at the end of the novel, a woman on a bike says “hello” to Sand and her father’s dog in a moment that becomes poignant only because of the build up preceding it. The reader is extensively introduced to the word “curlew” without explanation only to finally encounter the bird it describes a hundred pages later. The book’s nonlinearity is confusing until you realize it mimics the illogical way time flows during the COVID-19 lockdown. Meaning is meted out in small parcels that only make sense when you look at them backwards.
Much like the e.e. cummings poem, Ali Smith’s novel is full of microcosms of the novel as a whole. For example, Sand’s artistic work is painting poems — writing their words layered on top of each other to create a portrait. It would be cliche to say that “Companion Piece” is like a painting itself, so instead, I’ll say that Sand’s work offers insight into making sense of the book backwards. “Would I go first word to last or last word to first?” Sand wonders, thinking about turning “The Scarlet Letter” into a painting. “Going start to finish in transferring a text into oils has a weighty heft, is physically conclusive, can be satisfying. It can also feel too fixed and closed and completed. Going finish to start can feel precipitous, unsafe. But the finished work can be liberated by the knowledge that the finished surface you meet with your eyes is a beginning, not an end.”
Is the end of “Companion Piece” really a beginning, not an end? It is true that most novels make more sense read from front to back than back to front. But Smith’s novel is nonlinear; it switches perspectives with little to no warning; it goes on tangents about horses and getting lost in the woods and a fictional medieval lock. I’m not suggesting that you read it from last page to first page, but I think the end is really the beginning of the reader’s journey of making sense of the book. It is only with hindsight that you can understand the significance of many parts of the novel — and for those parts that still seem unconnected, you’ll want to start at the beginning again to see what you missed.
This book is not perfect, of course. Sometimes the tangents went on too long, the dialogue was confusing and the timeline lost me. Sometimes the parts that mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic were a little too on-the-nose — like when Sand asks her neighbors “Have you got masks?” and they reply “Absolutely not … We’ve got nothing to hide.” Maybe I’m just so fed up with this actually happening to me that its presence in a novel, even satirically, still rubs me the wrong way. The over-exaggeration of the behavior of the “younger generations,” too, can get annoying and didactic: A neighbor’s dialogue contains spelled-out text abbreviations (“eye em oh” for “IMO” and “eye tee at eye gee” for “IT at IG”), and a younger character threatens Sand that they’ll “cancel” her. Although it is, again, satirical, it falls a little flat, especially when compared to the stronger parts of the novel. Overall, though, these pitfalls are overshadowed by an intriguing form, compelling language and interesting premise.
The question remains, finally — what is “Companion Piece” a companion piece to? The answers are endless: to the pandemic, to the characters in the novel, to the solitude of the act of reading. But I think, like all books, “Companion Piece” is a companion piece to you, the reader. It is a guide to itself, taking you through the pages and guiding you to some sort of meaning at the end (which is, perhaps, the beginning). What that meaning is, ultimately, is up to you — this novel is, after all, only a companion piece.
Senior Arts Editor Emilia Ferrante can be reached at email@example.com.