Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Review published on September 16, 2018.

My overwhelming feeling on finishing this novel was one of relief, not because I was glad to reach the end, but because I could let go some of the tension that had built up as the story progressed. This is an unsettling tale and if it weren’t so firmly grounded I’d be tempted to call it a parable for modern times. It’s certainly an acute observation of life impacted by grief and loss. This year’s Booker long list distinguished itself with the inclusion of two novels that normally would have been overlooked: Snap (a crime story) and this wonderful graphic novel, Sabrina. Actually, Sabrina is also a crime story, many will dispute that by arguing it’s not genre fiction, but it deals with a kidnapping and brutal murder and it’s aftermath, this is surely noir territory.

Reading Sabrina is an intensely emotional experience as we witness the effect of Sabrina’s murder on the survivors and the way her story plays out in the media and wider societal context. It’s a psychological thriller, one of the most tense I’ve read this year. Anticipation becomes trepidation as the tale unfolds, endless possibilities present themselves, none of them good. It feels like an explosion of violence could happen any minute. Drnaso’s insight into how people tick is what makes the decision to include this novel on the Booker list innovative but correct.

Sabrina is alone in the house, cat sitting while her parents are away. Her sister, Sandra, calls in on the way to a party. The girls start making plans for a grand bicycle holiday at the great lakes, just the two of them, no social media, some time later in the year. However, Sandra also mentions her first solo trip away from home, it was a scary experience and the atmosphere chills a little.

Airman Calvin Wrobel collects his old friend Teddy King from the station, they haven’t seen each other for a long time but a friend in need… Calvin has lived alone in Colorado since the break up of his marriage, his wife Jackie and their daughter Cici now live in Florida. Calvin settles Teddy into the house but has to head out to work, leaving Teddy to fend for himself. Over the next few days Calvin tries to rekindle the connection they had as school friends but Teddy is closed down. He sleeps in Cici’s room, surrounded by toys that remind us the child is gone, that there is a void in Calvin’s life too. Calvin faces a dilemma, there’s a job in Special Investigations up for grabs but he can’t decide if he should take it or move to Florida to be nearer his daughter. Something his wife doesn’t want.

Meanwhile, Teddy can’t grasp why his girlfriend has gone missing, he eats poorly and mopes around the house, he’s traumatised, at night he screams in his sleep. Sabrina Gallo disappeared about a month ago. Sandra, the rest of her family and friends are dealing with the grief but a letter arrives containing Sabrina’s bus pass, its a cruel blow. Calvin tries to break it gently to Teddy but worse is to follow. A local newspaper receives a video of the murder. Calvin’s and Teddy’s problems manifest themselves in disconnection; failing to communicate, internalising the issues and bottling up emotions. Then Sabrina’s story becomes the subject of speculation in the media: “WE WON’T STAND FOR IT MUCH LONGER.” Social media also explodes with theories, ranging from it never happened to it was a conspiracy. We see all the madness and ignorance play out at the expense of the family and Teddy. In the midst of grief will Teddy be manipulated by lies? Is Calvin so busy helping his friend that he doesn’t recognise the Danger signs in his own life? How do you maintain your identity under the weight of events?

The themes of the novel revolve around the dislocation and isolation of Calvin and Teddy through grief and loss. The nature of trauma is explored; psychosis or PTSD? It’s heavy stuff, it’s unnerving at times but it’s also incisive and thought provoking. The artwork is simple, there are a huge number of drawings here, the Spartan feel reflecting the sense of isolation the characters experience. It’s a wordy novel, a speculation on truth and values and understanding. It’s not an easy read but it is an important one. The emotional and intellectual depth of this work really shows that graphic novels can be truly complex and engaging.

Paul Burke 5/5

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
Granta Books 9781783784905 hbk Jun 2018

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