Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £16.99, out now

Nick Drnaso Sabrina

This graphic novel has been making waves outside the comics scene, exemplified by its inclusion – gasp – in the Man Booker prize longlist this year, the first funny-picture-word-bubble book to be so.

And it’s easy to see why. This intelligent and affecting work has in its crosshairs a swathe of modern maladies, from the pervasiveness of fake news and conspiracy legitimacy to the prevalence of non-specific alienation and mental illness. Make no mistake, this is heavy – just listen to the plot: the titular Sabrina has, out of the blue, disappeared, and her quietly distraught boyfriend has moved in with an old school-buddy, the nominal centre of the story. He wants to help his friend, with whom he’d all but lost touch, but he’s got problems of his own – namely a failed marriage and a young daughter he never gets to see. And when new information about Sabrina’s situation emerges, his troubles are about to multiply in a distinctly 21st century way…

From this framework Drnaso constructs an unsettling, paranoid world, but it’s a very recognisable one, cleaving very close to our current reality. It’s a testament to his skills as a storyteller that every damning reference to modernity – from one character’s urge to another not to unplug his phone (which the latter is using for a pivotal phone-call) as he needs it charged for work, to a constant, inescapable onslaught of emails a protagonist must at one point suffer – feels natural and unforced. Awkward Skype calls, violent video games, online hate-campaigns, clickbait… they’re all peppered throughout without feeling like clutter. He hunts big game effortlessly while propelling a queasily gripping narrative, a world away from traditional missing-person procedurals but just as enthralling. Certain sequences really bring out the armpit-sweat.

But what of the graphic part of this graphic novel? Sabrina’s visuals are, frankly, bland, its characters simply depicted, androgynous snow-man shapes with dot eyes and thin lines for mouths; at times, they make Tintin look photorealist. When they experience strong emotion, there’s a haunting disconnect between their rudimentary features and their apparent anguish; but mostly each ambiguous countenance suits this sterile world of platitudinous conversation, missed signals and repression. Every backdrop is minimally, if accurately, drawn, bright colours are almost entirely absent, and somehow this banal milieu quickly becomes engrossing in its own way. Indeed, at key points in the narrative this unreadability on the part of the characters drives the tension wonderfully, as we cannot suss out their intentions or judge where they stand. Simply put, what at first might seem like an unexciting creative decision quickly reveals itself to be a brilliant and innovative use of the form.

All-in-all this is tough, smart, powerful stuff, form and content perfectly married to craft a cold world of unspoken pain and suffering. If it ticks your boxes, we’d also recommend Art Spiegelman’s superlative Maus, another amazing, devastating graphic novel which we happen to stock as well.

Review by Tom

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