Anna brown is a portraitist of repute enough for her work to have graced the front of The New York Times.
She has painted her husband John every single day of their long life together. Now he’s left her, a “fossil with a paintbrush”, working in the studio of their rural New England home on what will be her final picture, while he sets off on a pilgrimage searching out his past in the portraits she painted of him now hanging in museums, galleries and private homes across the country.
Anna’s work is “said to show the changing heart of the country conveyed through two life models” (first and foremost her husband, and secondly their housekeeper Vishni). John is a wall-building, broad, sun kissed-shouldered outdoorsy type of the Walt Whitman, Robert Frost-infused American pastoral tradition, a hardworking remnant of the Depression era he grew up in, but it’s the 80s and times are changing. The subject of the portrait Anna now labours over is of a third figure, one who typifies the new consumer-led, money-making ethos of the age – her dealer Ben, the fragrantly moisturised, bespoke-suited New York gallery owner who exhibits and sells her work.
Niven Govinden’s decision to portray this partnership at the very moment at which the husband and wife are torn asunder is an interesting one. Anna narrates the story, thus all action, including John’s travels without her, are filtered through her central consciousness. Taken too literally it’s a problematic confusion of perspective, but read metaphorically it’s a neat extension of the power dynamic between artist and subject. Like a puppet master pulling the strings, John is Anna’s creation – the control she exerts over his narrative reinforcing her physical configuration of him in her daily portraits. She’s the one dying, but it’s his existence that is threatened. He’s spent his entire life as a void, “A space for her to fill”, thus this desperate need to look his former selves in the eyes in an attempt to try to “understand whether it was all worthwhile”.
The concept is interesting and it’s not without flashes of brilliance, but the novel makes for infuriating reading. It’s often hard to follow what is going on as Govinden’s meandering, sometimes overwrought prose – “The empty place set at the table makes the lightness of our dinner talk a fallacy. We sit tightly as if listening to the band on the Titanic after receiving premonitions of our doom” – turns this delicate material into muddied waters, the silt of which obscures the finer outlines of the fraught undercurrents of a life-long collaboration between husband and wife, artist and subject.