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.
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.