Book Review: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

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Every year the Man Booker Prize longlist comes and it becomes a massive list of books I want to read. Inevitably, I never get round to them all but I will try to manage one. That one then becomes my top pick for the prize because it is the only one I’ll ever read. Most of the time my picks don’t make it to the shortlist and, if they do, they never win the prize. It was only last year’s Lincoln in the Bardo that I correctly championed. This year the first and, thereby, only book I’ve read is the one causing a massive stir. For, in 2018, the Man Booker committee have decided to place a graphic novel on their longlist. It’s quite a huge step for a prize that is so often awarded to similar works all deemed to be of high literary value. Occasionally, you’ll get the odd piece that verges more on popular literary fiction, like David Nicholls’ Us, but it never makes it to the shortlist. These guys know what they like and that’s not going to change. So, for there to be a graphic novel on the list is a pretty big deal. For such an elitist prize to pick something so un-literary is unprecedented. I had to check it out for myself.

I have enjoyed plenty of graphic novels in my time and I do agree that there are some fantastic pieces out there. However, I will always believe that there is a massive difference between the way you read one versus a traditional novel. I don’t think it’s entirely comparable. It’s something that once got me in massive trouble with an ex-flatmate when I suggested graphic novels were less significant in literary terms. It’s something I’ve discussed to some extent before and don’t really want to get into now. But, I have to admit that I think you read a graphic novel differently because the illustration has such a greater significance than the words. There’s an art, I think, in writing a graphic novel because you have to pick each one carefully but the main source of analysis will surely come from the visuals, right?

Anyway, I’m always willing to be to be proven wrong so I’m trying to get myself to be more open-minded about graphic novels. I was quite excited to read Sabrina because everything I’ve heard about Nick Drnaso is great. I haven’t read his first graphic novel Beverly published in 2016 won him an LA Times book prize. His follow-up has received the praise of writers like Zadie Smith on top of its nomination. It really has captured the attention of the literary world.

Sabrina opens in Chicago with the quaint domestic scene of a young woman house sitting for her parents. She feeds their cat, has a visit from her older sister, has some help with the crossword, and then goes to sleep in her childhood bed. This is the last that her sister and indeed the readers will see Sabrina as she goes missing the next day. The narrative then cuts to an airport somewhere in Colorado where we see Calvin, a soldier in the Air Force, picking up his childhood friend, Teddy. The pair haven’t seen each other in years and there are plenty of awkward silences along the way. Something helped by the fact that Teddy is, obviously, Sabrina’s boyfriend and still unaware of what happened to her. Calvin offered to let Teddy stay in the hope that it would help him. Instead, as Calvin works late nights at the nearby military base, Teddy is holed up inside his bland apartment listening to the radio.

These two opening scenes come together to set up the rest of the novel. We see the effect that Sabrina’s disappearance has on her nearest and dearest as well as the country as a whole. Whilst Teddy and Sabrina’s sister, Sandra, are walking around in a daze hoping to see her again, the rest of America is suspicious of everyone and everything. The story is set out in a dispassionate and unsentimental manner. We see the events as they happen but are not forced into a certain way of thinking. Drnaso delves into the horrific depths of one’s minds when a loved one goes missing and plays with the fear that would grip anyone. Yet that removal between the story and it’s presentation to the reader means that you never take anything for granted.

Which helps convey Drnaso’s message. Sabrina isn’t really the story of a young woman’s disappearance. It is an exploration of truth, trust and, fear in our society. Now more than ever in the age of Trump and “fake news”. The combination of the internet and other independent sources for news have allowed us to get into a situation where anybody’s opinion can be presented as truth. Conspiracy theories have always had their place in any big news event and some of the key ones are mentioned here. Drnaso name checks 9/11 and Sandy Hook in his own work to highlight the history we’re working from. To show how we’ve got to a situation where news can be recorded on someone’s phone and every piece of video evidence is scrutinised by any amateur with enough time on their hands.

Sabrina is a seemingly simplistic novel but is so carefully laid out to seem natural. The events appear to happen as they would in real life and you never get the sense that we’re just waiting to be taken somewhere else. What you do get, however, is an unnerving sense that nothing is as it seems. As the story plays out you realise that there is very little proving either side to be true. The nature of the graphic novel means you are using your eyes to see how this plays out but can you trust anything you see? Especially when it presented so coldly and to the point. We never find out exactly what happens to Sabrina so you will spent all of the novel and, most likely, plenty of time after you’ve finished it wondering who was telling the truth, if anyone.

Drnaso’s story is a fantastic and bleak portrait of modern life and the increasing emergence of fear mongering surrounding news events. When there is enough room for speculation then people will continue to find holes in every theory. Even irrefutable evidence becomes untrustworthy and everyone becomes suspicious. It is easy to see, when reading, how one might be drawn in to believing these people. If any reader makes it through the novel believing only one theory about what happened to Sabrina then I salute their resolve. For me, I have no clue who is right and it has left me feeling a bit weird.

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