Companion Piece is billed as a follow-up to Ali Smith’s Seasonal quartet, four novels written in response to current events that were published at speed between 2016 and 2020. The quartet was praised for being both timely and timeless, folding the plots of Shakespeare’s late romances loosely into contemporary fictions. Smith’s characters are variously depicted as frustrated by the wonky robotics of officialdom and groping their ways towards insights into particular artists and writers. The style, now demotic, now incantatory, welcomes and beguiles the reader.
Spring, the third and finest volume of the quartet, featured an imperturbable schoolgirl with a revolutionary agenda and miraculous powers. Her resemblance to Greta Thunberg was uncanny, given that Thunberg was, at the time it was written, still a plaited speck on a school step. It increased the sense of Smith being a writer with a seer’s command of where and when to swoop on the news. Spring appeared in paperback alongside the virus in March 2020. Many readers experiencing new alienations in familiar surroundings must have hoped that Smith would take on the oddness of lockdown. But the timing was too tight – even for this experiment in almost-instant fiction – for the virus to play more than a relatively modest part in Summer, published in August 2020. Companion Piece is the pandemic novel that didn’t make it into the quartet.
The novel is narrated by Sandy Gray, an artist beached by isolation and anxiety about a father sick in hospital – not with Covid-19 but fearful of catching it. Sandy receives a call from Martina, someone she hardly remembers, whom she once helped decode a poem by E E