A familiar terror / On reading ‘Sabrina’ by Nick Drnaso

Breaking this unintentional hiatus to talk to you about SABRINA by Nick Drnaso, which has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Six months ago, as winter’s merriments passed us by, I went to Canada. There I made a pit stop at Drawn and Quarterly, a gorgeous bookshop as well as a prestigious publishing house in Montréal which focuses on comics. I mistakenly ended up at the latter venue, trudging through inches of snow after my phone died on me, stunned by frostbite. I took refuge in the best fried chicken restaurant in town and had myself two pieces, a scrumptious mac’n’cheese and a single-shot Bulleit served with a perfect spherical piece of ice – all for $16 – while the waitress charged my phone so I could resume my polar expedition. And here it is again: Drawn and Quarterly – the lead publisher of SABRINA by comic artist and writer Nick Drnaso, published in the UK by Granta Books.
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Ours is an age of saturation, ruled by infinite attempts to capture this ‘current political moment’ in long and short form, 24/7. This novel’s brilliance lies in its versatile use of comic art. Firstly, as a means to cut through the tension of the endless scrolling through timelines as headlines compete for our clicks and sap our focus and resolve. But also as an astute portrayal of human emotion and expression in the face of horror – unfathomable and at times incoherent.

Drnaso deals in nuance, every interaction and relationship between characters or lack thereof credible and humanising. The sisters with sibilant names who experience loneliness but fail to express it. The grieving boyfriend whose loss is laced with isolation, inaction and paranoia, to the soundtrack of radio shows by self-proclaimed pundits who at first speak with reason. The childhood friend who offers material help and finds himself attracting the ire of trolls and the obsession of deranged conspiracy theorists. The missing girl. The ellipses. The mistrust. The paranoia. The fear mongering. The loss of objectivity. The unknown. The loneliness. The unspoken. The paranoia. But mostly: the familiarity of it all.

To the comics tyro (waves) for whom these themes are usually captured solely through words, here their sparse use combined with amorphous bodies with quizzical facial expressions creates a chilling sensation. Time and again, as Drnaso refuses to show or tell, the reader is left to fill in the gaps, interpreting the mood and tone with little more than a colour palette and their own instinct, fretting about what happens next as well as what doesn’t. This is one brilliant graphic novel, which with simplicity and depth tells us so much more about these strange times of ours than so many words – including these – could ever begin to express.

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