“A Story Is Always a Question”: On Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece”

By Bailey SincoxJune 1, 2022

“A Story Is Always a Question”: On Ali Smith’s “Companion Piece”

Companion Piece by Ali Smith

RECENTLY, STUDENTS in the “great books” class I teach asked how we, their teachers, justify devoting our time to literature when there’s so much suffering in the world. A colleague responded by telling them a story. Once upon a time, the Queen of Sheba begged King Solomon for a palace unlike any other: a palace made of bird beaks. Solomon summoned all the world’s birds to surrender their beaks. But before he would comply, the greatest of all birds, the hoopoe, asked Solomon to answer three riddles. The last was this: “What is strong enough to bore into a tree trunk, but delicate enough to feed a baby?” The answer, of course, is a bird’s beak. Solomon thanked the hoopoe for the lesson and did not build the Queen of Sheba’s palace after all.

How does this story explain the point of stories? It doesn’t. Rather than describe literature’s application, it involves the students in discovering it. They interpret the tale together just as Solomon solves the riddle.

Ali Smith responds to a similar question in her most recent novel, Companion Piece. Instead of answering, she too structures the book around a riddle. Through wordplay, Smith tests what a “pandemic novel” and a “pandemic author” might be.

Smith first imagines a disenchanted artist doubting her work’s purpose. The novel’s first two parts follow Sandy (“Sand”) Gray, a painter. In the first part, “You Choose,” Sand has a crisis of faith while her father is in the hospital with COVID-19. “What a lifestyle thing life has become,” she thinks. Meanwhile, “no government was ever going to give a fuck about and no history was ever going to think it worth recording” the “millions and millions and millions of individual people” who died in “what was after all just the latest plague.” Sand’s solitude is interrupted by a phone call from Martina Pelf, a college classmate. Martina tells Sand a story: she was detained at the airport for seven hours with a priceless work of early modern craftsmanship known as the “Boothby Lock.” As she studied the elaborate metalwork on the lock and its key, Martina explains, she heard a voice through the wall: “Curlew or curfew […] you choose.” She asks Sand, who had always in English class “just knew what things meant,” to interpret the words.

On the one hand, this is an author’s (and, I might add, an English professor’s) fantasy. It is a fantasy in which literary criticism is an essential business, where close reading intervenes in a moment of trauma as if the moment itself were a text that could be analyzed, a riddle that could be solved. (In a flashback, Sand shows Martina how to close-read an e. e. cummings poem for their Practical Criticism seminar; this is the inspiration for Martina’s cry for help.) On the other hand, the scenario is a nightmare in which authors are asked to tell readers what a moment means when they don’t know themselves. So, Sand lies awake,

wondering how on earth she’d known to make up the kind of story that really did intrigue even a deflated version of me.

It was almost as if she’d targeted me with it. The passports. The blank officials. The inexplicable and uncalled-for detainment. The revelation of the artisan beauty. The disembodied voice in the locked room.

Companion Piece invites us to read Sand as a version of Smith herself. Like the narrator of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (2014–’18) or the eponymous heroine of J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), Sand exists in the liminal space between autofiction and allegory, between the writer and The Writer. Following Smith’s Seasonal Quartet (2016–’20), Sand shows us the author-artist exhausted, exasperated. Autumn (2016) was Smith’s response to Brexit, but the Quartet’s scope kept expanding, taking on the refugee crisis, climate change, and, by the final volume, Summer (2020), the global pandemic. When Martina asks Sand what curlew or curfew means, it’s hard not to see ourselves demanding that Smith interpret COVID-19 for us.

Yet the lock renews the artist’s love of her art. As Sand recognizes, Martina’s story has all the elements of an Ali Smith novel. A ghost’s disembodied voice features in Hotel World (2001), while both a dead lover and a Dickens character speak to the protagonist in Artful (2012). Smith takes on bureaucracy’s banal evil in her Seasonal Quartet: Autumn starts with a failed passport renewal and much of Spring (2019) takes place in an immigrant detention center. Most of all, Smith loves to write about “revelation[s] of artisan beauty.” Unlike Francesco del Cossa’s frescoes in How to Be Both (2014) or Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture in Summer, however, the Boothby Lock is fictional. The ekphrasis with which the novel begins is entirely a work of Smith’s imagination — perhaps the key to Companion Piece.

Smith’s work suggests the artist forging communities that endure conflict, catastrophe, and even social distance. In Companion Piece’s second part, “Curlew,” Martina’s children, Eden and Lea, confront Sand, claiming their mother is “acting like a mad woman,” only to become obsessed with Sand themselves. “You’re a catalyst. You’re an avatar. You’ve transformed our mother into a live person. She was like dead till now. You’re what our family’s needed all this time. You’re amazing,” the twins say. They arrive at Sand’s house unannounced, demanding she tell them stories. Eventually, they move in.

Despite the intrusion, Sand begins to reconsider her art. “I’d been layer-painting this poem since the start of the pandemic,” she thinks. Over and over, she paints Dylan Thomas’s words “Now curlew cry me down to kiss the mouths of their dust” (also one of Companion Piece’s epigraphs). And after months of isolation, Sand begins talking to people again. “Something about the story of that old lock mechanism had unlocked something in me,” she muses. While Sand had resented Martina’s phone call, she now Zooms Martina to share the “tale” of a strange girl with a curlew (an endangered shorebird with a long, curved beak) on her shoulder breaking into Sand’s house and taking her boots. After this conversation, she thinks to herself:

What if, next time, I painted a novel rather than a poem?

Maybe by the time I’d finished painting something as long as this novel we’d all be well into whatever the next stage of this time in our lives would shape up to be, through the tragedy, past the farce.

Smith-like, Sand imagines her work spanning seasons, eras, and genres. More importantly, she hopes the painted novel will keep us company as time passes. Like the story she shares with Martina and the meal she shares with the dog, art now seems “a companionable thing to do.”

“Curlew” shows that literature keeps us from being alone by involving us in a community that includes author, text, and readers as well as our planet’s nonhuman inhabitants. The girl with the bird embodies this, becoming another puzzle for the two women. “That girl in your house,” says Martina. “She’s a personification. Isn’t she? […] A vision […] [o]f the person who made the Boothby Lock. Isn’t it?” Though Sand rejects this theory, she and Martina nevertheless form a connection by sharing the story. And as Sand tells her unconscious father from behind her PPE,

Curlews actually turn up in one of the earliest English poems we’ve got. […] The poem’s about a person who’s miles from land, they’ve been at sea in a boat for a long time, and it’s a sort of prayer about our aloneness and our surviving. All the seasons pass through it, or the poem’s speaker passes in the boat through all the seasons with nothing for company but the sea and the life of the sea. Except, dad, and this is what I love about it, actually that speaker isn’t alone at all, because I’m reading or hearing the poem, or you are, if it’s you reading it. A conversation with someone or something that’s silent is still a conversation.

The curlew, like the swift in Spring, is a symbol of hope. Curlews are in our literature — perhaps, given the continuity from the Anglo-Saxons to Dylan Thomas, curlews are our literature. The curlew’s peculiar appearance resonates with the pandemic moment, too: “[I]ts bird face with that beak was like it was wearing one of the plague masks you see in pictures of when people wore them in Venice back in the centuries, so that the length of the mask would keep the germs at a distance.” The curlew’s beak is adapted to its purpose, mirroring the acts of storytelling in Companion Piece that are both impeded and facilitated by phones, screens, and masks.

Lastly, Smith celebrates words, word-makers, and word-users. The novel’s third part, “Curfew,” follows a 17th-century female blacksmith forced to leave her forge. The girl is apprenticed to Ann Shaklock, a woman who teaches her how to “read fire” and “how to do the curfew.” Ann is a storyteller too. She explains:

There were hammers and anvils deep in human ears, she said, because smithing is a kind of listening […] They love us for our magic, and then when they forget their good sense they think we’re doing black magic and they get scared and angry. […] They get angry at anything, everything. They think we have powers we don’t. They need us so much for the making and the mending of things that them needing us makes them angry too.

This smith is another version of Smith, emphasizing writing as craft. Other COVID-19 novels have looked inward to answer the question of literature’s role now: Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence (2021), Gary Shteyngart’s Our Country Friends (2021). But Companion Piece looks inward only to look out again. Smith swerves from the notion of the novel as our companion in isolation to acknowledge the relative novelty of women freely creating. The smith recalls Virginia Woolf’s fictional “Judith Shakespeare” in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Though just as gifted as William, Judith is barred from professional playwriting, becomes pregnant, and dies young. (“Ann Shaklock” is a wink and a nod to one of Smith’s favorite sources of allusion: she shares a first name with Shakespeare’s wife and swaps his spear for a lock in her surname.) With equal parts humility and wonder, Smith celebrates the ways that literature’s community has grown. At the same time, she queries how the vision might be more expansive still. Situating herself in history, she invites us to co-create a more inclusive world through language.

In a word, Smith is a wordsmith. At a time when “curfew” reminds us of government mandates to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Smith excavates the word’s original meaning: couvre-feu, “cover fire.” Whether the girl in “Curfew” is the girl in Sand’s house, or the voice who speaks to Martina, or the maker of the Boothby Lock, Smith delights in making a word that has become hateful mean something else. She revels in the slippage of consonants between “curfew” and “curlew,” in the mutability of human and animal language, of art and nature. She trains our attention on the curlew, who “will point its beak, its fishing rod, its trident, tool of its trade, narrow as a finely beaten curved and tapering line of iron and maybe as strong.” The curlew shows us, as he shows the smith, that “[t]he life in human words can be taken and beaten by careless working into badly made shapes averse to the life that’s in them.” With “curlew” and “curfew,” Smith lays out the more hopeful alternatives from which Companion Piece invites us to choose. As Sand says, “A story is never an answer. A story is always a question.”


Bailey Sincox is a PhD candidate in English at Harvard. Her writing has appeared in The Drift, The Rambling, Harvard Review, and various academic journals. 

LARB Contributor

Bailey Sincox is a PhD candidate in English at Harvard. Her writing has appeared in The Drift, The Rambling, Harvard Review, and various academic journals. 


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