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Sabrina

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.

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“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.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden. It has one of those cool die cut designs where you can see an image through the “window” of the front cover, although this was not used in the final design of the book. As this was not my first George Saunders book, I gave it to my Dad to read first because I knew he enjoyed Saunders’ short stories. When my Dad gave it back to me saying he wasn’t able to finish it I was intrigued. This book was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – surely it must be fantastic, right? I had to find out for myself.

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“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by George Saunders and is part historical fiction, part magic realism. Based on the events surrounding the death of Willie, the young son of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the story takes place on the night of Willie’s funeral. Distraught by the death of his son, Abraham Lincoln visits the body in the crypt where Willie is interred. However, unbeknownst to his father, Willie’s spirit emerges that night to mingle with the other souls who have not been able to move on to the afterlife.

The absolute first thing to say about this book is that it has an incredibly creative and refreshing narrative structure. The story is told by a chorus of voices, some of whom are ghosts encountered by Willie and some of whom are guests at the party thrown at the Lincoln’s house. The voices are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory and provide a multifaceted glimpse into the man that was Abraham Lincoln and Saunders’ concept of a limbo inhabited by ghosts who cannot move on. I found that the beginning of the story was very compelling. There was a particular scene where the guests were giving simultaneous yet contradictory descriptions of what the weather had been like that evening that I thought was a great comment on the fallibility of history and human memory.

However, it’s difficult to sustain such novelty and momentum in a novel and I did feel as though the latter half was neither as strong or as structured as the former half. While I found the gossipy exploration of Lincoln’s presidency and family life fascinating, the concept of the bardo – the space between life and afterlife – seemed as though it grew muddier as the book progressed. There were several confusing concepts, such as Willie’s peculiar susceptibility to being consumed by vines made of shrunken tormented souls. Although adding a sense of urgency to the plot, some of these aspects of the intermediate state in which Willie finds himself don’t make a great deal of sense. Why would the fate of a child’s soul depend on the conduct of the other souls he is surrounded with in the cemetery where his body is left?

For fantasy to allow the reader to effectively suspend disbelief, the author needs to set rules for their imagined world that are at least coherent, if not plausible. Saunders was making exceptions as fast as he was making the rules to his bardo otherworld and ultimately I found it hard to follow and therefore hard to immerse myself in. Other parts of the story, like the African American ghosts, seemed incidental and shoehorned in at the last minute.

I think this is absolutely a wildly imaginative book and Saunders is definitely not short on creativity. However, as in my review of “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, I think he can sometimes be either too blunt or too abstract in his story-telling. Would I have given this the Man Booker Prize? I’m not sure. I’ll have to read some of the other contenders and compare.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books