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‘Sabrina’: The first graphic novel on the Man Booker Prize Longlist

Nick Drnasco's grim account of a missing woman is told with minimal imagery and dialogue

Nick Drnaso employs a minimalist, subversive style to tell his story in ‘Sabrina’.
Nick Drnaso employs a minimalist, subversive style to tell his story in ‘Sabrina’.

Nick Drnaso’s sophomore graphic novel Sabrina is a disquieting account of loss, and of our times. The novel’s title character, seen fleetingly in the book, is a young Chicago woman whose disappearance upsets the lives of her boyfriend Teddy and sister Sandra. Teddy, muted and dulled by grief, moves in with an old friend, Calvin Wrobel, who works a desk job at the Colorado air force base. It is Wrobel who emerges as the novel’s primary character, ensnared in the devastation caused by the release of a graphic videotape, while coping with the erosion of his relationship with his wife and daughter.

The central crime in Sabrina seamlessly ties in with the mood of the moment, accommodating the public appetite for personal tragedy, the perils of social media-fuelled misinformation, and the ubiquity of social isolation. While there are references to events like 9/11 and school shootings, the novel maintains a steady gaze on its central characters. Drnaso’s visual style, sparse and undramatic, builds a mood of impending doom with its quiet pastels and ominous pace. The expressions of its minimally sketched figures are left blank, with no furrowed brows or wide grins layering a scene. Grief is understood through defeated stoops and helpless immobility, and the state of relationships sharpened by the visual space allotted to pauses and silences.

Drnaso’s debut Beverly, published in 2016, was an acute, well-received portrait of suburban America. Praise for Sabrina has been wider and more enthusiastic; author Zadie Smith described it as “the best book—in any medium—I have read about our current moment". Last week, Sabrina also earned the distinction of becoming the first graphic novel to be longlisted for The Man Booker Prize. A statement released by the judges noted that it was only a matter of time before a graphic novel made it to the list, and “Sabrina makes demands on the reader in precisely the way all good fiction does. Oblique, subtle, minimal, unmanipulative: the style of the pictures is the book’s world view".

The list of 13 books in this year’s Booker longlist features four first-timer authors and, according to Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of the 2018 judges, works that showed a “willingness to take risks with form". Debut novelist Daisy Johnson’s reimagining of Oedipus, Belinda Bauer’s thriller Snap, and Robin Robertson’s verse-novel The Long Take, feature alongside heavyweights like Michael Ondaatje and Richard Powers. Four of the authors on the list, including 29-year-old Drnaso, are under the age of 30, making it a significant year for young, subversive voices in literary fiction.

The Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced on 20 September, and the winner on 16 October .

Sabrina: By Nick Drnaso, Granta Books, 208 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>1,900.
Sabrina: By Nick Drnaso, Granta Books, 208 pages, 1,900.

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