DISMISS

Niven Govinden

British novelist. Known as a "writer's writer"

Born in Hastings, England. Based in London, England, UK

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Fiction

Languages spoken

English

French

About

The author of four novels, most recently All The Days Nights, longlisted for the Folio Prize and shortlisted of the Green Carnation Prize. 2013 winner of Fiction Uncovered Prize. Second novel Graffiti My Soul about to go into film production Autumn 2016. Short stories published globally. Outside the UK, novels translated/published in Germany, Italy, India, Canada, US, Australia/NZ.  


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Bibliography

All The Days And Nights, 2014, Friday Project/Harper Collins

Black Bread White Beer, 2012, Friday Project/Harper Collins

Graffiti My Soul, 2007, Canongate

We Are The New Romantics, 2004, Bloomsbury

Extract: Waves

Of course he should sleep. Now that he was in hospital, there was no question. The hypochondria from before faded once the ambulance showed up. What was clear is that he should rest whilst the doctors investigated. 

- Close your eyes, Jacob. Get your head down.

- Rest, and let us do what we have to.

Sleep is all that he trusts in a body that is failing. For each meal he’s unable to hold down, the sheets he cannot keep dry, sleep is the old reliable. He allows the meds to knock him out, regressing to the state of a newborn; illness forcing him to relinquish control and simply fall back onto the elemental tropes of food, rest, and nappy changes. Does he sleep like a baby? How would he know? There is no one around to tell him; his mother long dead, those who purport to love him now, nowhere to be seen. He asks whether it is possible for a nurse to watch as his sleeps; to make notes that go beyond monitoring his vital signs, but they mistake this as fear of being left alone, keeping the door of his room ajar as if this will reassure him.

All he knows is that he dreams; a surfer riding opiate waves as soon as they first appear, thrilled by the force of it. His consciousness drifting in and out of a strong tide. Who says he can no longer have fun in bed? He’s surfing Waikiki from the seventh floor, holding his own for as long as he can, until he drops and lets the drugged sea take him. He rides to exhaustion, paddling until his arms have no strength to even push the hair from his face, his voice hoarse from screams of terror and elation. On his actual visit to Hawaii, he spent no more than two hours in the water, the time not commensurate with the expenditure on custom surf paraphernalia, knowing even before he’d left the jeep that he despised the instructor’s youthful confidence; how the boy’s ease with the sea was impossible for him to master in a series of ten lessons. He could have built a hut on the beach, sleeping out there for weeks and still not control the sickness lodged in the pit of his stomach; a reminder that nature could not be controlled through force of will; that the discipline needed to surf, the sheer bloody-mindedness was weaker than his lazy desire. So why now does he return here in these empty afternoons, breeze pushing hard against his soft belly as he paddles into the surf; the tenacity to ride and fall, to ride harder and stronger until there is something approaching harmony between his salt-blistered feet, the board, and the waves? Nothing about that holiday made him happy bar how his legs looked in a pair of long floral shorts, yet all he sees as the frequency of the IV drip increases, is the sun breaking over the Pacific, his skin slowly warming as he moves from shadow, its tone chasing honey as it leaves its natural white and blue. He recognises that in health these dreams would not come, so that on waking there is a perverse satisfaction; thankfulness for a tiny part of what this illness brings. 

- Did you sleep well, love? The nurses ask.

- Are you feeling rested, sweetheart?, ignoring that he is unable to speak clearly from the sedatives making his throat dry; the bark and scratch of his voice painful to his ears. Instead, a persistent cheerfulness as he is bathed and changed, making him almost wish to be shouted at for being so helpless. He longs for an exclamation of surprise or irritation from those who tend him, if only to break through the wall of impenetrable stoicism. Something to suggest that it remains in his power to change what is happening to him, but there is only this steadying, impersonal efficiency. It is all well and good to be clean, and have your weak muscles massaged to encourage circulation, but how to control your insides, to lower your blood pressure simply by willing it, to clear the impurities in your blood through thought, to eliminate those organisms that multiply and attack your cells? Why do they never explain the contrary nature of hospitals, he wonders? How it is entirely possible to become sicker after admission than before. And in what way does a lifestyle of healthy diet and exercise help him now? One carrot is no defence for what is happening under his skin: the unspeakable wrapped around cartilage and within tissue, seeping into organs, and lodged deep in the marrow. 

He would escape if he could, from the room and the smell he cannot help but manufacture. Back on the island, O’ahu, he runs laps around his hotel complex, penance for a lack of aptitude in the water. Running he can do, even with his frame, the ease at which his bulk covers ground, over man-made hills, through copses of manicured palms, their growth meticulously planned to please tourists, past thick bougainvillea, heady with fragrance; the scent so perfect as to appear synthetic. Only his sweat to muddy the air. Something accomplished in the perspiration that soaks his t-shirt, the hammering in his chest as he pushes for one more lap, then another; running to the point of dizziness, the Honolulu skyline visible through the trees, until the palms and the golf course it borders onto disappear into a white void.

 There were many simple things he once relied on to take him out of himself: running in the park or propping up a bar; looking a fool by challenging younger men to pool games that were out of his league. Similarly, the test of another vehicle drawing up beside him at the traffic lights, revving his engine and daring a race against a white van or souped-up Fiat crammed with teenagers. Far greater than his pride is his impatience to demonstrate strength or knowledge with those a generation or more behind him; and how this grows with age. The swagger of young manhood a tipping point for his antagonism, which shrinks as his waistline swells. He has a shorter fuse, disintegrating as fast as his brain cells. For all its unattractiveness, the inevitable humiliation by juvenile hands, he is thirsty for these encounters; anything where he can deliver a lesson.

- Rest, say the doctors. It’s important that you’re comfortable, but we can’t progress if you don’t look after yourself. Stop looking for arguments with the nurses.

The suggestion being that rest cures all; that somehow all the drugs they pump into him are merely indulgences – a warm-up for the real work that must take place; a remedy beyond the doctor’s realm, something undefined and akin to magic. But he knows that his body does not repair during sleep; white blood cells attacking red; bacterial infections running laps past sluggish antibiotics; each race faster than the night before, more destructive, all conquering. You do not surrender to illness, he thinks. You are not given the opportunity; too busy mulling over your chances to realise that you’ve been gripped by the throat. Illness is a hunting dog that does not shake its prey. Long after he leaves the hospital, he imagines he’ll remain in a state of shock; his body withstanding multiple jump-starts and meddlings. The months it will take to fully recover; to walk steadily and learn to keep down food. And everything punctuated by sleep. The promise of sleep. The disappointment then, waking to find himself still in bed, and to a body further destroyed.

A morphine sea pulling him back to the beach; a barbecue set up by the hotel where he drinks one bottle of weak local beer after another until the fizz in his guts sets-off a greater fire; his jeering at the hula loud enough to still be heard over the chants and drums, his dancing more unsavoury as the moon over the Pacific grows in brilliance, swelling overhead, as if to project his anger. He looks at his hands gripping the bottle, the skin dry and sagging from his knuckles; wrinkles within creases and spotted with tiredness and dirt. He feels useless and old. Twenty years ago, it was entirely possible that he could have ruled this stretch of beach just by relying on his strength of body and mind. What he has now - aches and pains, clumsy when he’d previously been dexterous, a feral grubbiness replacing sexual allure – brings out the worst in him, his behaviour abhorrent, his language increasingly foul, relishing the sound of his voice as it cuts across the other guests; welcoming an audience despite the clear berth they give him. One of the more fulsome dancers holds his gaze, though she too will reject him later; leaving only the surf instructor to take him by the shoulders and gently nudge him away from the main party.

- Let’s take a walk, mate. Get some night air in those lungs.

- You’re Australian?

- Only in your dream, mate. When you met me I was Polynesian born and bred.

He’s grateful for the rescue, knowing the ugliness he is creating, yet still resenting the boy’s good sense and confidence to take control of the situation. How he’ll be congratulated as a hero the next morning; an extra bonus at the end of the month, and his pick of the hula girls. His own possibility as a saviour to anyone has long since expired; the injustice sticking in his craw.

- I didn’t have to fly halfway round the world to get plastered. I can be an idiot anywhere.

- That I can believe. Let’s keep walking. You’ll feel better for it.

- Look at you - Hercules in surf shorts. Doesn’t last.

- I think it’ll do for now.

- You think you’re it, son. We’ll see.

What strengthens as power fades, resolve or decay? Waking one morning he has difficulty opening his left hand, fingers bunched tightly into a fist as if independently deciding upon their permanent repose. It takes two nurses to uncurl him, one digit at a time, only for it to settle back to its previous form once they leave. As a consequence, he's no longer able to feed himself, spoon-fed by whoever is there. This is not giving up, he thinks. More a pooling of resources. The energy it takes to be disgusted I must use elsewhere. The effort it takes him to stay awake and face his enemy; to stare down his hand and the sallowness of his skin; to grip what is left of his wasted flesh, willing back the days when a combination of authority and pure heft could right things.

He feels his body tense up as he drifts into sleep now; his shoulders hunching when they should melt into the blankets swaddling him; his fists clenched, burning a hole in his palm. He understands the false premise of falling unconscious, that it is neither painless nor restful, and how his body physically resists it by refusing to soften.  

- It’s not uncommon, one nurse comments to another, unaware that closed eyes do not necessarily mean closed ears. I’ve seen them get like this before. Natural instincts taking over. Impulses we don’t realise we even have.

- You mean, faith?

- More… persistence.

Asleep, yet awake, he’s aware that personal power still exists, obscured somewhere deep and impassable; an insect smothered in amber and buried under rock. Falling again, until he’s upturned. Back to imagining the beach, his face now at sea level, damp and claggy from resting on sand; exhausted from effort, dazed from a closing punch to the side of the head, locking the sound of waves between his ears. Still, he reaches.  

- Look at him knocking his fists together. The concentration on his face. Should we wake him?

- Leave him, nurse. Can’t you see this is what he needs? He’s fighting it. He’s fighting.

 

Commissioned by the BBC