Graphic novel about the aftermath of a terrible crime
Content warning: gendered violence, mental illness
Shortly after starting at a new job, I managed to rope in some colleagues into starting a work book club with me. To kick off the first meeting, we put together a list of books including some from the 2018 Man Booker Prize longlist. This book is the first graphic novel to ever be longlisted for arguably the most prestigious prize for English language fiction, and as a long-standing fan of graphic novels, I had to check it out.
“Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso is a graphic novel about a young woman called Sabrina who goes missing and is later found brutally murdered, and the ripple effect this crime has on the people in her life. The story follows Sabrina’s boyfriend Teddy, Teddy’s childhood friend and recent divorcee Calvin and Sabrina’s sister Sandra. Both Teddy and Sandra struggle to make sense of what has happened to Sabrina, with Teddy becoming a recluse in Calvin’s empty house and Sandra no longer finding meaning in her everyday routine. Caring for Teddy fills up the time left by Calvin’s absent family, but with Teddy largely uncommunicative and staying in his room in his underwear occasionally eating the takeout Calvin buys, his house is still extremely lonely. Meanwhile, after Sabrina’s body is found and footage is leaked of her murder, conspiracy theorists begin to target Teddy, Sandra and Calvin with accusations that they are crisis actors and that Sabrina’s death was actually a false flag operation.
Graphic novels, especially when written and illustrated by the same person, are unique in that not only is the author communicating to you through their writing, but they also communicate via their art. Drnaso is very minimalist in both his writing and illustration style and the pared back conversation and sparse scenes are very effective at conveying the everyday and each of the characters’ searches for a new normal. He has a real talent for capturing the mundane and I do think that this is a really astute work on suburban America and the interplay between work, relationships, friendships and social media. The focus of this book is undoubtedly conspiracy theories, and the impact that they have on the families and friends of victims of tragic events. Drsnaso excels at building a gradual sense of unease and paranoia, especially for Calvin, as the impact of media reporting, invasive messages from conspiracy theorists and caring for Teddy begins to affect his work and personal life.
I agree that there are a lot of strengths in this graphic novel, but I must admit I am a bit incredulous that this graphic novel is the first one to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Was it good? Yes, it was fine. Was it the best graphic novel ever written? Not by a long shot. I think one of my biggest issues with this book was that despite Sabrina being the eponymous character, and the victim of an appalling case of gender violence, Sabrina’s story is the backdrop to Calvin’s, Teddy’s and, to a lesser extent, Sandra’s stories. As someone with a close friend who went missing and was later found dead, the focus of this book made me deeply uncomfortable.
I understand how losing your girlfriend in such circumstances could lead some to depression, and I understand that caring for someone with mental illness can be challenging, but I really don’t think this book went anywhere close to deep enough on the impact of Sabrina’s death on her family, especially Sandra. Considering the vast majority of this book is men talking to other men, I don’t think that there was really ever enough analysis on why Sabrina was murdered. At one point Sabrina’s sister calls Teddy and berates him for his lack of action, including primarily not coming to Sabrina’s funeral, and I kind of see where she’s coming from. I understand that Drnaso made changes through the editing process to make Sandra’s story more prominent, but she probably gets about a tenth of the airtime Calvin and Teddy get.
I think I really just feel that if you’re going to write a book about American conspiracy theory culture following tragic events, I think that you should at least do the tragic event itself justice. Sabrina didn’t have a voice in life or in death, and I just feel that given the horrendous statistics globally, but also in the USA, on women who are subjected to violence by men, I would have liked Drnaso to have taken a bit of a stronger stand in helping to empower the women affected by this kind of violence – even if it was to show how valued they were in life and how missed they are in death.
Look there is plenty more I could say about this book about themes of gratitude, relationship breakdown and workplace culture, but I might leave it there for now. Anyway, I am nevertheless glad to see that graphic novels are finally starting to be taken seriously in mainstream literature. I think that Drnaso has produced a chilling piece on the impact of conspiracy theories, but if you’re tempted to give graphic novels ago, there are plenty of other excellent award-winning ones that you might like to try as well.