On the heels of Smith’s seasonal quartet, which somehow followed the blitzkrieg of current events, “Companion Piece” is set in our pandemic-influenced world, an all-too-familiar territory that Smith typically makes wonderfully strange. Which it does, in part, by blending Sandy’s 21st-century story with one set in late medieval plague-haunted England.
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In fact, the story is already strange enough the moment our medieval heroine, a girl with a bird – specifically, and significantly, a curlew – on her shoulder and the tools of a blacksmith in her hand, mysteriously appears in the house of our current heroine. We’re in for a modicum of magic early on, when we find Sandy entertaining Cerberus, the mythical three-headed watchdog of the underworld. This, under the puzzled gaze of Shep, the dog that Sandy cares for for her father, who is in the hospital – not the virus, she says quickly, heart stuff – although of course the virus infects everything.
What sparks the plot, or at least snaps Sandy out of her slump, is a belated call from a woman she hasn’t spoken to in decades: Martina Pelf had a peculiar experience that needs to be deciphered. , and so she thinks of Sandy, a college acquaintance who “knew how to think of things that everyone more normal would dismiss as a bit off-planet.” Martina’s story involves her transporting 16th-century Boothby Lock, “a very important historical artefact and stunning example of blacksmithing”, for a museum and ending up in a locked room at an airport where a voice without body says to him: “curlew or curfew.” Then he adds: “Yor choose.”
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Unpack that. Well, Sandy is trying. And for her troubles, the whole strange Pelf family swoops down on her, maskless, causing her to flee to her father’s house with Shep. The piling up of the Pelfs, with their presumption of interest in Sandy, their reckless appropriation of his house and their speech peppered with acronyms (in bee dee = not much, for example) give the book a funny momentum. wacky, against which the other stories are set elsewhere.
There are glimpses of Sandy’s life with her father, stretching back three hours, 12 hours, two years, three decades, half a century; stories of his wandering mother child and woman about to leave; and the case of the girl and her curlew, which was not a vision, Sandy insists to Martina, but “a real person in my house, really thief, really wasted, really dirty, very smelly, really hurt and with a burn on his collarbone that was really crying. This visit provides insight, and Martina provides footnotes, for the full story told later, of an orphan taken in by a blacksmith and his wife and taught the trade but abused and driven out when his mentors die, forced into vagrancy, a crime according to the laws of his plague-ridden age.All these hundreds of years later, could the brilliant Boothby Lock be his work?
Sandy, like its author, is a person of words (an artist, much to her father’s chagrin, who makes visual representations of poems by painting one line over another), and her storytelling comes alive to the music. and in the light of language, whether she is analyzing an EE Cummings Poem for Martina or explaining the etymology of a word like curfew or making sly allusions or silly puns.
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And in language, there is the possibility of grace. Remember Sandy’s despondency at the start, reflecting on “the deaths and frailties of one of the millions and millions and millions of individual people, with their detailed generic individual lives joyful elegiac fruitful wasted nourishing undernourished, who were suffering or dying right now or had passed away in the last year and a half in what was after all only the last plague and whose departed souls swirled unseen in changing whispers above each daily day in which we we walked, under these figurations, full of what we imagined to be a goal.
“What is there to say to this loss?”
A lot, as it turns out. Because, if in the end Sandy doesn’t say what happened to the girl or the bird, or “if any of these ever happened, if any of them ever existed”, writes Smith, “somehow, here they are both are.” And here we are too with Sandy and Smith, “today on the surface of things”, making our way with words.
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a collection of stories, “world like a knife.”
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