All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden

In the opening pages of All the Days and Nights, the latest novel by British writer Niven Govinden, we hear from Anna Brown, a renowned artist living on the East Coast of America. The year is 1980 and Anna realises that John, her partner and muse for the last fifty years, has left their home (as he has previously threatened to do). It soon becomes clear that John has embarked on a quest to view Anna’s portraits of him, pictures which now hang in museums and private collections across America.

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Govinden adopts a very interesting approach in conveying Anna and John’s story by moving between passages written as first- and second-person narratives. The use of the second-person narrative – in which Anna addresses John through the use of ‘you’ – gives a feeling of closeness and immediacy, almost as if she is speaking directly to the reader. As she relays John’s journey across the US, everything we see and hear feels as if it is being refracted through Anna’s lens. It’s as if Anna is imagining what is happening to John, seeing these events in her mind’s eye.

As the novel progresses, we also hear Anna’s perspective on her life with John: how he arrived on spec in search of manual work and ended up staying for fifty years; how comfortable and open he is with everyone in the local community, while Anna prefers isolation as she needs her own space in which to breathe.

One of the key themes of this novel centres on the search for meaning. Anna is dying, and being a stubborn individual she is struggling to face up to her own mortality. John’s quest to view Anna’s paintings is driven by the need to define his relationship with this woman, and by viewing these images he hopes to understand the essence of his life with Anna. What exactly did Anna capture in these portraits and will John recognise himself? What emotions and facets of their relationship has she drawn upon, exploited even, in the name of art? Does John’s life contain any meaning at all beyond that of his role as a subject for Anna’s paintings?

All the Days and Nights also offers an exploration of the creative process and the relationship between artist and muse. We see Anna’s determination and dedication to her craft, the intense physical and mental demands she makes of her subjects as they strive to maintain a position for several hours.

As Anna enters the final phase of her life, she wishes to complete one final painting, and with John absent, she calls upon Ben, her agent and lifelong friend, to pose as a sitter. As she works on this final piece, there is a sense that Anna is attempting to atone for certain failings in her relationship with John.

I admired the insight and sensitivity Govinden brought to his previous book, Black Bread White Beer, a novel about a young couple dealing with the emotional fallout from a miscarriage. All the Days and Nights, however, feels like a significant leap forward in terms of emotional heft and the pull of the writing. This is an intensely poignant and absorbing novel; I liked it a great deal.

Susan at a life in books has also reviewed this novel.

All the Days and Nights is published in the UK by The Friday Project. Source: proof copy (not for quotation) kindly provided by the publisher.

23 thoughts on “All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden

  1. Col

    A colleague at work told me about Black Bread White Beer just before the summer. I’d been looking out for it but if this is a stronger novel I might try this first. One of my favourite places in London is National Portrait Gallery and every time I go I was wonder how the sitters might have felt about their portrayals. So that part of the novel appeals to me greatly! I tried to replicate it years ago by having my portrait done by a street artist in Athens – all I could come up with was ‘I don’t look like that do I?’!!!! So hopefully this will give more of an insight than I managed myself!!!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, I would recommend you take a look at Black Bread White Beer, too, especially as it sounds as if comes with the recommendation of a friend. The emotional aftermath of a miscarriage is a very difficult subject, and I think this author handles it with great sensitivity and insight. All the Days and Nights does feel like a step up in terms of weight and intensity, and if you’re interested in the process of art, it’s definitely worth a look. The narrative style is very interesting, and it took me a little while to fall in line with its rhythm…but once I got it, Anna’s voice really pulled me into the story.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    As I get a little older these stories centering around very long term relationships of all kinds seem to appeal to me more and more.

    There really is so much potential in such stories.

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    Reply
  3. realthog

    A very interesting review, as always: many thanks. I shall have to keep an eye out for the book — which, I see from Amazon.com, is coming out here next March.

    I know very little about The Friday Project, but they seem to be publishing a lot of good books at the moment.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, John. It’s an interesting book with a distinctive narrative approach and voice.

      Yes, The Friday Project seem to be on a bit of roll at the moment. I’ve seen several very positive reviews for Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart…and they’ve just published Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which sounds smart, funny and right up my street!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. I found it a difficult book to write about and to be honest I’m not sure I’ve done it justice. There’s something very deeply felt about this novel which I found very difficult to put into words. The portraiture theme and the connections Govinden makes are very interesting: how an artist can capture a feeling or mood in the process, how individual viewers see different things. And I was fascinating by the idea of John looking back over his life and relationship with Anna by going on a form of pilgrimage. It’s a compelling novel, well worth seeking out.

      Reply
  4. Bellezza

    I can so relate to needing one’s own space and solitude…especially when facing a drastic change such as her serious illness brings. I’m intrigued by the multiple perspectives, let alone the story line.m

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Anna’s quite a loner by nature, so the fact that she’s dying just heightens her sense of isolation. I liked this one very much, Bellezza, and it’s so interesting in terms of narrative viewpoint.

      Reply
  5. Claire 'Word by Word'

    This sounds wonderfully revealing and reminds me of the strange experience of sitting for a painter, which I did once. So much for it being an emotionally passive activity, I was shocked at the intensity of it and the strangeness of not knowing what was evolving on the canvas that caused the artist so much angst, it was more like competing in a marathon than the quiet relaxed activity I’d expected it to be! So much drama in its stillness.

    Great review and a writer I’d not heard of, will be seeking it out for sure.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s really interesting, Claire. It wasn’t something I’d considered before, but this novel does give a sense of the emotional demands involved in sitting for a portrait. Also, because John is sitting day in day out, inevitably there are times when he is down or distressed about something. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, there is a clear sense that Anna has chosen to capture some of these emotions in her paintings (including one occasion following a traumatic event). As readers, we are invited to consider how this might have affected John and whether Anna’s actions are appropriate in the name of art.

      I think you’d like this one very much, Claire, especially given your interest in art.

      Reply
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  7. Max Cairnduff

    I have Black Bread White Beer, which I’ll read first. It’s good to hear that Govinden is growing as a writer, it makes him one to watch and promises that the next book might be even better.

    That first person/second person thing is clever. I don’t recall seeing that before (though I doubt it’s the first time it’s ever been done, still, clever).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh yes, start with BBWB. I liked it a lot and it’s very sensitively handled, but without wishing to do BBWB any kind of disservice this new one feels like a real progression. I loved the premise, the ideas, Anna’s voice. It’s very assured piece of writing, and he’s definitely growing as a writer, I have no doubts about that. As you say, it bodes very well for his next book.

      I would have included few quotes to illustrate the style and the first-person vs. second-person narrative, but my copy was a proof and marked ‘not for quotation’. Like you, I don’t think I’ve come across anything like this before either, but it’s very skilfully done here. It could have felt a bit tricksy, but it isn’t at all. Once you settle into the rhythm it’s very natural.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I saw a twitter conversation between bloggers on the use of quotes from proofs, and I think the statement’s there in case the author changes anything between the proof and the final version. But yes, it does seem strange and the quotes would have added something. Ah well…

          Reply

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