Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels, running from Autumn to Summer, is one of the most interesting enterprises in recent fiction. It was undertaken with an eye to the changing intellectual weather, so the last novel talks about things which the first novel could never have predicted. They have a controversial edge, but never aim for authority; rather, the big ideas and changes in society they cover enter into the lives of people who aren’t quite sure what they are seeing, or how to talk about it. They are quizzical, often very funny, and their apparently relaxed and fickle style cunningly disguises just what a high-wire act this is. We want these novels to go on talking, and not every writer achieves that.
No one could say that Smith is a predictable writer, and now that the seasons are done with, here is a fifth novel – Companion Piece – to go alongside. It covers a lot of contemporary ground: gender fluidity, healthcare policy, increasing impositions of petty authority and a xenophobia with much enhanced self-confidence. I would guess, too, that Smith enjoyed the recent re-issue of Kay Dick’s long-overlooked 1977 dystopia They. Like Dick, Smith’s world view is suspicious of the interrogators of culture, who hope to advance through hatred of reading, culture, the arts; like Dick, too, there is an indefinable but unmistakably puckish quality of the sexual outsider.
Much of the novel is about a renewed acquaintance between Sandy, an artist, and an old school friend, Martina. Ella’s last glimpsed in Sandy’s life expressing bafflement over E E Cummings, she gets in touch to tell her about being held and subjected to hours-long interrogation by UK border police on the slightest pretext. Something Sandy says, over the phone, inexplicably resonates with Martina. Some days later her twins from her, Eden and Lea, show up at Sandy’s house from her, full of angry millennial denunciation of this woman who has somehow altered their mother from her – “Eye em oh you’ve a lot to answer for, the woman said.” In fact, as their visits continue, they are trying to get Sandy to restore their newly enlightened mother to their service from her; they are trying to get help.
In other hands, this clash-of-generations idea could be much broader and less sympathetic. Smith is evidently warmly amused by some of their preferred strategies – one twin wants to be called “they” – as many middle-aged writers now are. Smith, however, understands what a muddle they are in, and why they want to shrug off the would-be helpful voice of the older person, kindly explaining why it’s perfectly all right to use the plural pronoun for a single person and always has been . These twins reminded me strangely of EM Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch, striking moral postures and affecting anger to defend her own vulnerabilities. It’s all beautifully human, and the opposite of controversial. It understands the other point of view, as novels always have, and in the end shrugs off any idea that it might know best.
The novel is haunted, too, by fathers, and by dogs, which run through Companion Piece like uncontrollable avatars of love and life. Those are the plausible animals, whom we live with. In an extraordinary episode, a less explicable beast arrives; a curlew, appearing without explanation inside a stranger’s house. Compelling assent to the impossible by exactness of description has always been a forte of Smith’s; the curlew here is so solidly what it is that we go along with its appearance, and its disappearance. It’s a demonstration of sheer wizardry.
The risk of basing your fiction in the utterly contemporary, of course, is that a sudden chain of events can render your analysis null and void. I wondered, here, about the way the world has changed between Ali delivering this manuscript and its publication; whether what we are now seeing in Ukraine has not put the kibosh on her character’s statement by ella that “What a lifestyle thing life has become… we used to march in protest… [now] no government was ever going to give a f—.” The example that Zelensky is setting the world makes that seem, all of a sudden, world-weary, naive and out of date. But that’s the danger of the exercise. For the most part this is a glorious, entertaining and expert portrayal of the world we live in, seen by the most beguiling and likeable of novelistic intelligences.
Companion Piece is published by Hamish Hamilton at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop