Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, the first of which was published just after the Brexit referendum, the last as the pandemic took hold, was an attempt to document the world in real time. “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” went the canny opening sentence, a proclamation that seemed to grow more salient as the “times” went on.
But what is real time? How can you capture it? Where do time and language meet? These are some of the questions invoked by Smith’s latest novel. Companion Piece continues in the same vein as that luminous quartet, building on the preoccupations – borders, bureaucracy, isolation, apathy, contemporary language, failed leadership – introduced therein.
The novel is structured around a peculiar choice: curlew or curfew. “It sounds like a wind-up,” says our central character, Sandy, and it may well be. But in the world of the novel language is everything, and even supposedly random words can hold the key to something important.
Two of the most intriguing characters are twins who show up at Sandy's door and speak in acronyms, like creatures who have crawled out of the internet
Sandy wonders if the choice, presented to her by a “less than acquaintance”, has something to do with “difference and sameness” (the words differ by a consonant). This may be a key to help the reader going forward. We meet many other word pairings – “real v fake”, “imagination v reality”, “surface v depth” – and the challenge seems to be to allow opposition to exist without seeking resolution.
The story of Sandy in lockdown is mirrored by a story about a medieval vagabond during plague times. Layers of history pile atop one another, suggesting that past and present can’t easily be separated.
Two of the most intriguing characters are twins who show up at Sandy’s door and speak in acronyms, like creatures who have crawled out of the internet. One wears a T-shirt with the words “they/them” as though wearing a social media bio. Like the internet, these twins have little respect for privacy, and slowly infiltrate Sandy’s life.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Smith pulling off such an unorthodox approach. Not everything feels plausible, yet everything makes a certain sense or symmetry. It’s both hyper-real and surreal. And if there is a hallucinatory quality to the work (Sandy, at one point, wonders if everything, including the government, is a hallucination caused by the virus), it may be because life feels that way, too.
Across the whole quartet, and in this new Companion Piece, Smith digs through language and finds real life.