Books

Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece” isn’t worried about making sense

“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.

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During a flashback early in “Companion Piece,” Sand and a classmate try to puzzle out the meaning of the ee 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 ee cummings and it’ll probably be a bit true.” But this was a poem in a book I had decided 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 The 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 met out in small parcels that only make sense when you look at them backwards.

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