Thursday 28 September 2023

Companion Piece, Ali Smith

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Smith’s latest offering follows in the footsteps of her Seasonal Quartet. This is a novel written in real-time, dealing with the Covid pandemic, but with Smith’s characteristic ability to connect the present with a broader history. Our protagonist, Sandy, is an artist whose father is in hospital following a heart attack. She is unable to visit due to Covid restrictions, and so awaits news from a nurse, occasionally able to video call. Out of the blue, she receives a call from someone she barely knew at college, wanting to tell her a bizarre story about a recent ordeal in an airport, believing that Sandy will be able to make sense of it. Before she knows what is happening, her home is invaded by Martina’s family, none of whom take the pandemic seriously and so she relocates to her father’s house, afraid of becoming ill and not being able to see her father. We are then transported back to the seventeenth century and a promising young blacksmith being forcibly removed from her forge. It highlights the gender injustices of the time and the resilience of the young woman during a period of plague. 

Covid is present in the novel, yet it doesn’t feel like the main purpose. The Pelf family are an extreme version of people completely oblivious to the needs of others, taking over Sandy’s house without a second thought. The twins are suspicious, accusatory, and very much of their generation in the way that they speak, work, and view the world. They have the sense of invincibility that comes with youth for many. Despite having had Covid and continuing to suffer symptoms, there are no precautions taken, no concern that they’re co-habiting with someone currently suffering from it. They are blind to the world at large as well as to Sandy’s needs, it doesn’t occur to them that she needs to be particularly careful so she can visit her unwell father. They inhabit a world of entitlement, to their mother as she has been, to other people’s attention.

Sandy doesn’t have children but this theme of cross-generational relationships appear for her not just through her interactions with the young Pelfs, but also with her own father. She is an artist, using the words of great poets to create meaningful visual representations, but her father struggles to understand her chosen path in life, bemoaning the potential that he perceives as being wasted. There is affection between them but also a distance, a misunderstanding of each other’s world view and expectations that will be familiar to many readers.

Martina’s experience at the airport, being detained for having passports from two different countries, touches on familiar ground for Smith - the bureaucracy and abuse of it that often leads to human suffering, suspicion of those from other countries. To a lesser extent we also see the culture of surveillance in the work of one of the twins, constantly monitored for productivity and pulled up if they fall below the set rate. In the historical setting, we see the whims of bureaucracy causing terrible consequences for our heroine. With her mentor dead, people circle wanting to take the forge away from her. At the time, her virginity was essential for her to continue as an apprentice, and so a plot is devised to ensure she cannot continue in her position. Power will always be abused by those who wield it.

Smith examines the use of language and the way it has changed. There is discussion by the characters of the way grammar is so fluid but that the use of they/them in the singular is nothing new. The use of text speak (ey em oh etc) in spoken language feels ridiculous when written down, and the constant need to explain to Sandy what the abbreviations mean make any time saved entirely wasted. Social media is touched upon lightly, from the sharing of (mis)information to its perceived necessity in being successful in life. It forces us to consider the way we connect with our fellow humans, and the value of words.

Smith presents events from recent times in a way that feels like satire, but depressingly are fact. The book is littered with references to current events, almost without comment yet with great feeling behind them. This is an intriguing novel, and one in which I could happily read more of both stories. The Pelfs are infuriating, Sandy is a bit of an enigma, and the girl in the past has so much potential in a world that would rather restrict it. The connection through time is wrapped up at the end, but there is much still to wonder about how their stories end. 

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