Review: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso


Drab visuals offset gripping storytelling in the first graphic novel ever to be in contention for the Man Booker Prize, says Neil D.A. Stewart

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Sabrina is between jobs. Sabrina is staying in her childhood home to look after her vacationing parents’ cat. Sabrina has to be persuaded, at some length, to take a holiday. This is about as much as we learn of the titular character of Nick Drnaso’s new book, the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, because after ten pages in the company of the apparently entirely normal if slightly morose Sabrina, we’re plunged into what seems an unrelated sequence. Teddy, a blond, shapeless man with long hair is picked up by his friend Calvin at a train station. They hug, Calvin drives them home, they make fragmented small talk. Gradually, it emerges that Teddy is Sabrina’s boyfriend, and he’s come to his friend for sanctuary because Sabrina is dead.

Sabrina is a book about a very twenty-first century tragedy

Sabrina is a book about a very twenty-first century tragedy. It’s about how death is reported, mediated, sensationalised, politicised. The details of Sabrina’s demise, which prove to have a sort of life of their own as grim new information comes to light and is promptly relayed online, are seized upon by internet users, YouTube commenters and assorted conspiracists, all gleefully making hay from Sabrina’s death.

Sabrina’s characters glimpse conspiracy – actual or imagined – everywhere and, like a conspiracy’s proliferating tendrils, the book’s themes unfold fractally. Calvin works for NORAD, the defence agency, whose big-picture version of the world is set against smaller, individual but more shattering criminal offences. Sabrina’s killer is described as a loner, as killers often are, but in the ten or eleven pages where we see Sabrina alive, that description could fit her. In fact almost all of these characters are loners; when they’re not interacting – often in oblique, ambiguous episodes – they go about their lives in unaccompanied silence, pumping gas, taking long walks or drives, or listening to the radio in empty rooms. In a graphic novel, however, there’s no way for these isolated activities and private revelations to go unobserved, making Sabrina itself a means of surveillance.

Alone in Calvin’s home during the day, Teddy becomes obsessed with a talk-radio show, somewhere between Rush Limbaugh and Infowars, whose host fulminates about the deep state, false flag operations and the breakdown of society (as exemplified by Sabrina’s murder), impending civil unrest and, of course, his own imminent murder for daring to tell “the truth”. In a darkly ironic turn, he predicts in one instalment a major outbreak of violence for later that day; when it doesn’t occur, he returns to the air next day to turn that non-occurrence into yet another piece of evidence to support his unending conspiracy theory.

Everyone here is Caucasian, the men all clean-shaven; none of the characters varies much in age or physique

This is all good and timely stuff. But just as prose style can make or break a novel, so too Sabrina has to be assessed on its aesthetic grounds as well as its plot. Drnaso seems to have set himself several restrictions here: his line is of an unvarying width, his colour palette muted (even an image of blood is rendered a dull maroon) as if even the outside world is being seen under office striplights, and he sticks to a highly consistent grid on the page: rectangular panels that come in one of four different sizes, that at their most dynamic, in close-ups or establishing shots, expand to fill a quarter or even half a page. Though appropriate to his characters’ repressed, boxed-in mindsets, this inflexibility feels wearingly monotonous.

And while Drnaso’s depictions of buildings’ interiors and exteriors are attractively simple, clear and precise, his human characters – with their doughy faces and currant eyes – are almost naïve in their simplicity. Everyone here is Caucasian, the men all clean-shaven; none of the characters varies much in age or physique. This everyman-ness is no doubt intentional, but it short-circuits, for instance, a moment of high drama when Calvin and a colleague confront each other in the NORAD offices and from panel to panel it’s not immediately clear which of them is which.

I’m a bit torn, then: aesthetically, Sabrina is an unprepossessing object, a graphic novel whose rather drab look means I might not have picked it up on a whim. On the other hand, and aside from occasional minor confusions Drnaso’s self-imposed restrictions might sometimes cause the reader, it’s a deeply involving text that, as it grows darker and weirder, makes of the reader a kind of conspiracy nut. On more than one occasion, the seemingly neutral figure of a man driving a white pick-up truck appears in the book, and these recurrent cameos start to feel unnerving, even nightmarish. On the other hand, I found I had come to care so much for Teddy, whom trauma has made almost inarticulate, that I almost cheered when he turned off his radio set and silenced the prattling talkshow host mid-sentence. I haven’t been this emotionally invested in a book or a set of characters in a long time. C


Sabrina by Nick Drnaso is published by Granta