Niven Govinden’s intensive examination of relationships, art and death in All the Days and Nights will leave readers emotionally moved and unsettled by the characters it lays bare. The novel holds a magnifying glass over the lives of Anna Brown, a somewhat successful artist of the twentieth century, and her husband and muse, John Brown. Anna is dying and working on what will be her final piece of art. John, on the brink of losing the woman whose works have shaped his identity, leaves to track down his portraits that are scattered across America.
This premise in mind, readers will inevitably begin to deposit their sympathies with Anna, the abandoned and dying wife; but Govinden’s masterful study of the Browns’ strained relationship reveals the tension of a couple balanced somewhere on a spectrum between lovers and artist-and-muse. Anna’s artistic energy and creativity is exposed as controlling and at times cruel; she manipulates John, who feels strong ties to the countryside and animals, into posing after finding a dog hit by a farm cart (‘Sit. You’ll feel better, I promise you.’) On another occasion, Anna feels the urge to record John’s face after he fails to save a friend’s son from drowning. The novel skilfully illustrates Anna’s greed for a sense of truth in her art at the expense of her relationship with John.
Through the focus on an artist and her muses, Govinden evokes what it is like to be the observer and the observed. The intensity of a muse’s experience as the subject of Anna’s paintings becomes apparent; Vishni, the housekeeper to the Browns and sometime muse, ‘would cry after her earlier sittings’. A memorable passage describes John stumbling across the poses he holds in Anna’s studio when going about his everyday motions, his ‘movements […] blurr[ing] between what is natural and what is staged.’ Life beyond and within Anna’s paintings becomes hard to keep separate for the Browns. The roles of the observer and the observed become merged too: Anna is not free from the scrutiny of those who sit for her and observe her working method. Tracing this complicated dynamic between characters through the novel makes All the Days and Nights a provocative read.
Although the novel documents John’s escape and pursuit of an art hunt, Govinden chose Anna’s voice to carry the novel’s plot. The narrative style is accomplished as if Anna is speaking directly to John, despite the physical distance that exists between them for the novel. This use of perspective is telling of the Browns’ relationship: despite John’s attempt to escape, he cannot fully remove himself from Anna’s observation or artistic direction. Although, it is also tempting to suggest that Anna’s ability to narrate John’s experiences shows the strength of their tie as lovers under the surface of their difficult working relationship.
All the Days and Nights is a beautifully sad novel that artfully captures the peculiar sense of knowing that death is approaching and what it is like to be forced to deal with loss before it has happened. Govinden examines the futile ways people cope; the characters plan secretively, paint obsessively and run away, all in an effort to prepare for or ignore Anna’s imminent death. It is Govinden’s ability to sensitively navigate these emotions that makes All the Days and Nights a poignant and haunting novel.