This is not an easy book to write about, nor to read. Short it may be, but it’s dense and its style takes a little getting used to but if you’re prepared to make the effort it pays dividends. Narrated by Anna Brown, a celebrated portrait painter, it begins with a cry of anguish at the disappearance of John – husband, lover and the subject of many of her paintings. Anna has told her housekeeper that John is merely in town picking up art supplies but she knows that this is no short absence. Slowly – sometimes in vibrant word pictures, sometimes obliquely – a picture of John and the life they have lived together emerges through Anna’s memories and imaginings.
Driven and obsessive, always the observer never the participant, Anna is treated with suspicion in their local town. Much beloved by the townspeople, John’s openness and conviviality smooths the way for her. These two seem an odd pairing but their relationship has lasted decades. Now frail and dying but refusing to admit it, Anna looks back over their time together finally acknowledging the price John has paid, his dedication to her work, his joy in life and his sorrow in tragedy. John, it seems, has decided to visit her portraits of him, attempting to see what others see when they look at Anna’s work.
Niven Govinden’s exploration of creativity, obsession and the relationship between art and life is compelling. In a convincing depiction of the bond between artist and sitter, Anna’s steely determination to paint – or perhaps her overwhelming need – is matched by John’s dedication, his patience and sacrifice in bowing to her demands. In terms of length this is a novella rather than a novel but don’t expect a quick read – it’s a book that requires attentive reading.
When I was reading All the Days and Nights I was reminded of The Man with a Blue Scarf which I read a few years ago. It’s a chronological account of the seven months art critic Martin Gayford spent sitting for Lucien Freud but it’s also Gayford’s first-hand view of watching an artist work. It’s as if Freud was sitting for a word portrait while painting Gayford’s in oils. I found it fascinating and highly recommend it.