OU blog

Personal Blogs

New photo

Steve’s 2018 Booker 2. Drnaso, Nick 'Sabrina'

Visible to anyone in the world

Steve’s 2018 Booker Longlist Readings

2.      Drnaso, Nick Sabrina London, Granta Publications

This year I’ve decided not to set out to read all of the longlist but just those of which I had not acquired some prejudice (I’m not going to justify it as other than that).

Sabrina is the first graphic novel to be on the Booker longlist and debate thus far may have centred on this fact alone, although Zadie Smith has already identified it as ‘masterpiece’, ‘possessing all the delicacy of great art.’ I’m not surprised then that Granta chose those words to promote the novel on its cover. Somehow I wish they hadn’t. I spent a long time looking for what Zadie Smith called ‘delicacy’ but I do agree that the novel is often scary, often when it tells the story totally without words, as on p.177 – an episode in which Calvin makes his way alone to a downstairs computer console. Somehow telling such an event without words seems a revelation of what makes something like this ‘scary’. Even better is the episode on pp 139-40 where we see shots of Teddy and Calvin at either side of a door at which the narrative will pause, whilst decisions are made and preparations for hardly articulable possibilities – the ones which make Teddy find a knife to defend himself. All this is better without words – either in narration with indirect or even direct speech.

I found the play with our cultural uncertainties about the codes for ordering sequences that are in frames of varying size and positionality on the page very effective, which alter whether we read left to right or from top to bottom (as on p.167), where variation mimes the hesitancy of motion at night and where doubts about the situation one is in are mounting.

This goes to for the ease with which we read the content of speech bubbles when direct speech occurs. Sometimes that speech is distinct from an underlying gloom that has an effect on the readability of the boundaries between figure and background variables (p. 166) but at other times, the speech bubbles are coloured in the same background tone as the visual scene – when this is a night scene, making them more difficult to read and emphasising a kind of intentness perhaps in our attention or indicating a convention (radio speech is alone perhaps done in this way). See what you think about p.138, where we with Teddy hear the radio commentary, or p.123.

Action, if we call it that often is displaced to exchanges on different media – especially given the major theme of ‘fake news’ or the political uses of ‘faction’ (there is a reference to Capote’s In Cold Blood [p.6]) – that are sometimes difficult to know how to read. On p. 132 for instance, I felt irritated by the use of so many small frames – precisely separated by regular gutters – to convey the thoughts of ‘Truth Warrior’. I found the use of a completed HR type mental health questionnaire (e.g. p. 23) by Calvin equally tendentious. Suddenly it is as if we are asked to think that this does or must take an emotional temperature, something far from showing ‘delicacy’ or nuance in the story-telling approach.

There was much I liked here and many times that I was gripped by the narrative in a way new to me as a far from regular reader of the graphic novel but I likewise found some of the special effects indecipherable, such as the dog framed centrally on p.191 and the blank page on p. 202. Much of this may be intentional.

The wordless return of Sandra’s intention to cycle in the woods at the end I found irritating and non-communicative, and I wonder how many people remember that this intention had already been mentioned to Sabrina before her death (p. 8). I suspect that return is meant to be linked to the idea of safety and security and what that means (Calvin works remember in Federal Defence Security services):


I would guess that the key theme in this novel is there, since both humans and domesticated animals otherwise play a large part in it. And perhaps it is important to know if, when and where I can ‘be safe’ or ‘how can I take precautions for my safety’ – one way we encounter is the stockpiling of food (p.136) and it made me think of Brexit.  Despite all this I found the full-page frontispiece picture of Sabrina very disturbing. No problems are solved by it (she isn’t wearing the same top with which she leaves her mother’s house on p. 11), except to make us think about how we react to the fear of other people.

So, if this is ‘delicacy’ I want no more of it. Yet I’m intrigued about the fate of this book on its Booker adventure. And more, I want to hear some debate that might help me read this and other graphic novels.


Permalink Add your comment
Share post