SABRINA by Nick Drnaso
Drawn and Quarterly, 2018
Sabrina is only the second graphic novel I’ve read in my life (actually I’m realizing as I type this that the other is Fun Home which is actually a graphic memoir, so, technically the first graphic novel I’ve read?), so between me being ridiculously out of my element and the fact that its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist caused quite the stir, I had no idea what to expect from this. And I’m writing my review without having settled on a star rating, so, we’ll see what happens with that. I really, really enjoyed this, but I have a few too many nagging criticisms to say that I loved it.
Sabrina doesn’t really follow its titular character, as she goes missing by the tenth page; instead it mostly follows Calvin who works for the U.S. Air Force, whose childhood friend Teddy comes to live with him. Teddy is Sabrina’s boyfriend, and he’s utterly broken up about her disappearance. We then follow an array of characters – Calvin, Teddy, Sabrina’s sister – all trying to come to terms with their loss, all while being confronted with wild conspiracy theories about Sabrina’s disappearance.
What this book excels at is creating an atmosphere thick with paranoia, in the most terrifying portrait of our modern society that I think I’ve ever seen in fiction. Littered throughout the background of Sabrina as contemporary set pieces are news articles and internet forums; there’s talk of mass shootings, conspiracy theories, fake news. The characters are so inundated to this constant and aggressive stream of tragic news that infiltrates their lives, that the stark contrast of their simply drawn, blank expressions is recognizable and haunting. This probably got under my skin more than anything else I’ve read recently; this is not a comfortable book on any level.
What I didn’t love about Sabrina was that there is just so much going on, and it doesn’t all come together in a completely satisfying way. This is one of those books that builds and builds tension, but rather than culminating in a brilliant resolution it kind of just ends. After I put it down I wanted to give it 3 stars as I felt so dissatisfied with the ending, but upon some further reflection I do think this was so effective in achieving what it set out to do that I can’t help but to commend it for that.
Now, onto the Booker situation, because we clearly can’t end this review without touching on that. My feelings on this have run the gamut from ‘graphic novels are a form of novel and therefore should be eligible’ to ‘how can you compare graphic novels with literary fiction when they’re so substantively different and rely on fundamentally disparate storytelling conventions’ and you know what, I still don’t know where I stand on this. I understand both sides of the argument completely. At this very moment, I think I’m leaning toward the idea that graphic novels shouldn’t be eligible – not as a gatekeeping, elitist thing, because I absolutely do think that the merit of graphic novels has been dismissed for far too long; I’m just not sure how you can judge something like this against something like The Overstory. Judging is always going to be inherently subjective, but it really is an apples and oranges situation. And with Sabrina, the only text is in the dialogue and glimpses of emails and articles; there’s no prose outside that, which makes its inclusion on a literary award particularly perplexing. But, at any rate, I’m glad I took a chance on this one. Booker or no Booker, I see what the fuss is about.
More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews: