book review: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso



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:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman | Everything Under
In Our Mad and Furious City | Warlight | Normal People

27 thoughts on “book review: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

  1. Very interesting. Lack of resolution can be so frustrating, but I do like very atmospheric books and find paranoia fascinating. I’ve heard mixed thoughts on the artwork for Sabrina, some readers claiming it fits the story very well and some saying it doesn’t fit at all, so I’m glad to see that it worked for you conceptively. And honestly, this sounds a lot more haunting than the string of mediocre thrillers I’ve been reading lately.
    (Ironically, I think Fun Home is the only graphic novel/memoir I’ve read also; I’ve read a few comics but no other lengthier graphic works.)

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    • It worked for me better conceptively than aesthetically – personally I’m not a fan of the art style, but I was surprised at how well I thought it suited the subject matter. It was absolutely the most haunting thing I’d read in ages, it was so immersive in the sense that I was feeling bizarrely unsettled and paranoid by the end of it. Which is a compliment!

      That’s so funny that Fun Home is the only one you’ve read as well. I love Fun Home so much. I’d been wanting to try some more graphic novels ever since reading it, so I’m glad this gave me the excuse, finally!

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  2. Very interesting take re: The Booker. I’ve been curious about how it would compare to the others considering that a graphic novel’s writing is almost exclusively dialogue-based. It does seem like it’s always going to be an unfair race, and therefore futile to list them together, but then gatekeeping and definitions of what constitutes literature can be harmful and frustrating 🤔 Definitely one to ponder. But again, either way, I’m glad that 2018 has proven to be the year the longlist challenged convention and got people talking.

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    • As I mentioned the only other one I’ve read is Fun Home, which (if I recall correctly, it’s been a few years) actually had a lot of descriptive writing in between panels, and I remember being impressed by Alison Bechdel’s prose, so I think I was doubly surprised that Sabrina had NO writing outside dialogue; I think I’d been expecting something whose writing would singlehandedly justify its inclusion on the list? But, I’m all over the place about this… I think it’s complicated by the fact that ‘the Booker isn’t the right platform for graphic novels’ and ‘graphic novels have no literary merit’ are two conversations that are being majorly conflated. It’s just a fact that the substantive differences in form and style are going to add a whole level of complication to the judging process, and at a certain point I have to wonder whether including graphic novels in the Booker is going to do them more harm than good; they’re going to reach a wider audience but is it going to be the right audience, and are they going to be appreciated on their own terms or dismissed for not being literary enough? I really can’t make up my mind. But I completely agree, I’m glad a graphic novel was included this year to properly start this conversation.

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  3. Great review! I’m not sure where I stand on graphic novels being eligible for inclusion either. Admittedly I don’t read a huge amount of literary fiction so my opinion doesn’t hold as much weight as someone who reads widely in the genre, and I haven’t read Sabrina, but I lean towards including graphic novels. The storytelling is definitely different, which makes it challenging to compare, however it sounds like one of the things you found so successful about Sabrina was its creation of atmosphere. In this case the atmosphere was created both through text and through successful visual storytelling with the blank expressions on on the characters’ faces instead of just through prose. I’d argue the same is true of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus by Art Spiegelman (although it’s difficult to classify genre-wise and is more of a history/memoir/autobiography) which uses visuals and dialogue to tell the story effectively (sidenote: it’s also just really good and everyone should read it). I think where I’d draw the line is when a graphic novel is written by one person and drawn by another (Sandman comes to mind – brilliant series written by Neil Gaiman but he isn’t the artist). I suspect it’s unlikely that a graphic novel will ever win (or even make the shortlist) but I’m in favour of inclusion – it’s still great storytelling, just in a different form.

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    • These are all excellent points! I guess my main hangup is that the Booker is an established award specifically for literary fiction, and this is where I’m trying not to be elitist/gatekeeping, because I do think that genre fiction should be eligible, but I think graphic novels are a step further away from that because they almost feel like a different medium altogether? To me it almost feels like reading a book and watching a totally unrelated movie and then being asked to compare them. All forms of storytelling are absolutely valid, as you point out, and all have their strengths and their weaknesses, but I’m not 100% convinced that the Booker is the right platform to promote graphic novels… there’s also the question of whether this will ultimately do more harm than good; is the Booker audience the right audience for graphic novels, and is their inclusion on the list going to lead to them being taken more seriously, or will they be dismissed outright by the literary crowd? You’ve given me a lot to think about! And I really do need to read Maus one of these days.

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  4. Great review! I cannot believe this was only the second graphic novel you’ve read! I am such a fan of the medium.

    Also, re the inclusion on the Booker list: I think the fact that I’d always use “different medium” rather than “different genre” agrees with your idea that it’s two completely different things. I think that graphic novels are sadly overlooked often and that when they are brilliant, they are BRILLIANT, and more people should read them, but I am also not sure that a comparison between a novel and a graphic novel is all that easy. Then again, comparing books is never easy. I am at least glad that the longlist put this on my radar because I have been neglecting graphic works for too long.

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    • I know right?? I never was interested in comic books when I was younger, so as an adult I never suspected that I was going to be interested in graphic novels. But then I got really into the musical Fun Home and wanted to read the book, and I ended up loving that so much and realizing that it’s actually a really cool medium that I need to explore more. Do you have any recommendations?

      I think you hit the nail on the head with different genre vs. different medium. I was feeling a bit like a hypocrite because I DO firmly believe that good genre fiction should be eligible for the Booker, but there’s something fundamentally different about graphic novels to me and I’m just not convinced that this is the right platform to promote them. But, it is very true that they are sadly overlooked far too often, and I’m glad that the Booker brought this book to my attention. I’m conflicted.

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      • I didn’t read any comic books when I was younger either. I started reading graphic novels because I love Neil Gaiman’s work and wanted to read Sandman (which is in fact brilliant). My taste tends to be more towards the fantastical when it comes to graphic novels (I mean, Maus and Persepolis are obviously both worth reading but except for that I mostly read fantasy). I found the first few volumes of Saga as brilliant as everybody says (and then I was caught up and lost momentum – which is something that happens to me and TV shows a lot as well). My favourite at the moment are the Monstress graphic novels (and Marjorie Liu won the Eisner for that – as the first woman ever).

        I am also conflicted – but I think I agree with you, overall I am glad Sabrina made the list.

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      • I’ll have to check all of these out. Obviously Maus and Persepolis are on my radar, it is really embarrassing that I haven’t read either of those yet. I can’t believe Marjorie Liu is the first woman to win an Eisner! At least in that category. I’m not sure about overall. But, that is really a shame that it didn’t happen sooner. The lost momentum thing is so real. I really prefer movies to tv shows because I just struggle to commit to one storyline that goes on for years. I have similar problems with book series which is why I think I should stick to standalone graphic novels, for the most part.

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      • I am ok with series as long as I keep my momentum. Once I stop, I really have problems picking things up again. (I guess I figured out my tactic for reading the women’s prize)

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      • I think I’m similar. I’m finding the Booker MUCH less daunting when I’m just committing to reading a bunch of them in a row. If I try to space it out I get more stressed about it.

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