Companion Piece by Ali Smith

October 19th, 2022

Companion Piece begins and ends with “hello”, or some variation thereof, and that word, one we use all the time without necessarily thinking about the different ways we use it, comes up a lot in the book, most explicitly in a great section toward the end of the book about its possible etymologies and uses and connotations: “We say it to someone we’ve just met, it’s a friendly and informal ritual gesture of greeting whether it’s someone we know or someone we’ve never met before” and “It can mean someone’s surprised, or attracted, or caught off guard by something or someone, as in, hello, what’s this/who’s this?” and “It can be a polite demand for attention; imagine you’re standing in a shop and the person you want to serve you has gone through the back, say, so you shout it. It can also suggest there might be nobody there at all. For instance, you’ve fallen down a well and are stuck at the bottom of it looking helplessly up at the small circle of light that’s the rest of the world and you’re shouting it in the desperation and hope that somebody will hear” (pp 170-171).

That “hello”, that little word, little gesture, is a moment of connection or potential connection between people, and that’s a big part of what this book, which is set in England in 2021, in the midst of continued pandemic isolation for some and a partial return to normal for others, is interested in/about. At the start of the book we’re alone with the narrator, Sand, or Sandy, and her dad’s dog; she gets an unexpected phone call (which, of course, starts with a “hello”) from someone she went to school with. They weren’t friends, but this woman, Martina, has had a strange experience and somehow, after all the years in which they hadn’t seen each other or spoken, has thought to call Sandy to talk about it, to puzzle it through. The experience involves words—a disembodied voice Martina heard one day while she was confined in a room at the airport with a very old and very beautiful lock (she works at a museum and was bringing it back from a traveling show) that said a phrase Martina can’t make any sense of. Martina had gone to Sandy when they were at school when she couldn’t make sense of words: Sandy remembers talking through an e.e. cummings poem with her, after refusing to let Martina just copy her essay about it. And Sandy works with words: she’s an artist who paints the texts of poems, the words all layered on top of one another, and early in the book she says this: “all my life I’d loved language, it was my main character, me its eternal loyal sidekick” (pp 4-5).

At the moment when Martina calls, Sandy is blue and isolated: her dad’s in the hospital; she’s worried about getting covid and him getting it as well. The unexpected call from Martina ends up bringing Sandy into contact with Martina’s family, too, in a sometimes farcical subplot that has plenty of moments of annoyance, but also some moments of sweetness and connection. And then there’s a whole other subplot to do with the lock and the words Martina heard and a “vision” of (p 107) or imagining of or visitation by that lock’s centuries-ago maker, a girl living through a different plague.

I love Ali Smith’s work, in general, and this book is no exception. I love the wordplay and the lyricism and the heart of it. I love sentences like this: “I was thinking of the turn in an ordinary stairwell in a library and how the window above it let light fall on it” (p 49). Or this: “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” (p 95).

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