Companion Piece review by Ali Smith: Finding compassion in a world of everyday injustice
In side piece, Ali Smith offered a new gift to his readers. This novel, like its previous fictional cousins - the Seasonal Quartet – was written and published with remarkable speed. It talks about disturbing events in our world today. In visionary prose, Smith figures the raging experiences of recent pandemic years, while weaving episodes of injustice from the distant past.
At the heart of the novel is Sand Gray, a queer artist who channels the exhaustion many of us have felt during lockdown. Faced with the aftermath of her father’s heart attack, Sand experiences an existential crisis after an unexpected phone call from Martina Inglis, a former classmate.
Martina shares a curious story, about being trapped in a room by Border Control, while guarding the “Boothby Lock”, a museum relic with an untold story. Detained for hours, she hears a voice out of nowhere saying, “Curlew or curfew. You choose’. In classic Smithian style, this enigmatic phrase begins to haunt Sand’s waking life.
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Smith delights in unpacking the complex history of words, hinting at the dangerous consequences of our desire to label people.
Various guests arrive at her house uninvited, from Martina’s bratty adult twins to a mysterious shoeless girl, who may have been born from a century past. Through these encounters, Smith shows the connections between the struggles that humans have collectively faced over generations on earth. For Smith, the angel is always in the details. She delights in unpacking the complex history of words, often alluding to the dangerous consequences of society’s desire to label people.
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side piece is a novel that can be painful to read at times – in part because Smith captures some of the horror and inequality of this turbulent time so intensely.
Importantly, however, this story also shines with moments of compassion. From a young cyclist saying hello to an old man; in the company of birds and bugs; to the infinite kindness of a nurse at the hospital. Even though Smith reckon with all the difficulty of living in the world today, she also gives us hope.