A conversation between two sisters. Friends reuniting after years at an airport. The panels depicting these incidents form the exposition of Nick Drnaso’s deeply unsettling novel, Sabrina, the first graphic novel ever to be on the Man Booker Prize longlist. Between the two opening scenes, a single event that changes the lives of the characters takes place.

As a novel, Sabrina is successful because it eschews the kind of clichés that could be used to describe it – for example, as a story of an event that changes lives. It would not be a disservice to the book to reveal that something untoward and tragic does happen to one of the characters, and that the novel is really about the impact this event has on the other people introduced at the beginning of the story. Through panels and balloons in muted colours, Drnaso presents a masterful narrative of private loss and individual grief – a grief that is overridden by the prurient curiosity of the rest of the world.

A crime novel, perhaps?

If this gives the impression that Sabrina is a crime novel, the reader will be thoroughly disappointed while reading it. If they arrive at the same conclusion after having reading it, it will imply a gross misreading of the text. It is, admittedly, a page-turner in the way crime novels are, but sans the sensationalism and gratuitous violence. The turns in the plot, simple as they are, are revealed with a nonchalance that is jarring. And yet it arrests the reader’s attention.

The events narrated are grotesque, which is where the parallels with crime fiction – if at all – end. The same quality is again revealed in the unsentimental and dispassionate way that everything is narrated in this graphic novel. A video of a murder is sent to a local news agency as an almost off-hand announcement. And this is a deviation from the main narrative of Teddy and Calvin (the friends) and Sandra (one of the sisters) – a short interlude that, however, is quickly revealed to be a very significant detail in the events of the novel.

All these revelations are made in Drnaso’s characteristic drawing – clear lines with muted colours and populated with figures who do not betray much emotion. When they do, it is indicated by faces very subtly contorted by pain, or if the faces are not visible, by large red speech bubbles in which they are screaming. This method of storytelling comes as no surprise to readers familiar with Drnaso’s earlier work, Beverly, a collection of vignettes of unease.

For it is that same sense, derived from the trauma of death, that pervades a novel like Sabrina, which is brilliantly rendered through a perfect balance of pictures and text. Trauma is not alien to the medium of comics with Art Spiegelman’s Maus as the most recognisable. But Maus was in 1991, Sabrina is now. And it is the nowness that is so disquieting about the novel.

Here and now

Sabrina is squarely set in the present, and there are enough visual markers to prove it: several panels depict computer screens as the characters browse the internet for news, a mundane activity that any reader would relate to. Like in his previous work, Beverly, Drnaso transforms this mundane into something that would leave the reader squirming in their seat. The internet has an overwhelming presence in the book, dictating the narrative in more ways than one.

What should be the private story of a small group becomes that of the world at large through the quick dissemination of news online. The internet is also the medium of all “alternative explanations” of the tragedy and how it devalues the grief felt by those directly affected by it. Scrutiny of the alleged misrepresentation of the facts of someone’s murder and the disembodied voice issuing from a radio announcing the apocalypse become all too real when people, albeit fictional, leading lives similar to ours are vulnerable in the face of it. Sabrina, therefore, becomes a penetrating commentary on the current socio-political climate.

But solutions are not really offered on how to come out of it unscathed. A meek suggestion of “get[ting] away from the internet” is all the novel can offer. The irony of that statement, made so early in the novel, is not lost on anyone. How sad it feels when one realises it.

Sparking a conversation

With art that is comparable to that of Chris Ware’s – short and (sometimes) wordless panels that convey a sense of melancholia – Drnaso’s works also carry with them a sense of foreboding. The bareness of the scenes depicted in each panel with the (sometimes) solitary figure of either Sabrina, Teddy, Calvin, or Sandra moving about is chilling. There is an anticipation of some sort of disaster, similar to jump-scares in horror films. But like the impending apocalypse of the voice in the radio, it does not come. The mastery in crafting such scenes, panel after panel, is undeniable.

Perhaps that is why, along with the relevance of the novel’s content, Sabrina has been longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Its prominence as the first picture and text novel sitting alongside wholly typeset ones has sparked a lot of conversation. Or, as comics curator Paul Gravett, the author of Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics, has mentioned, it has aided the process of “the graphic novel being “discovered” again.”

This process of “discovery” is a continuous one with the most notable example, again, being Maus. Sabrina’s merit, however, as a graphic novel and even as an example of great fiction can be judged without such imprimaturs. But any discussion of the novel cannot be made without acknowledging the accolade.

Drnaso succeeds in creating a story about very ordinary people who fall prey to extraordinary circumstances, and that is what makes this novel “extraordinarily upsetting,” according to Ware. The discomfiting whirlwind of a narrative portrayed in the most understated of fashions is bound by scenes of staid human activity, only heightening the unease felt when reading the novel. Unlike a crime novel, turning to the last page does not reveal the mystery, it only plays out the subject of the sisters’ conversation at the beginning of the story – a bicycle ride to get away from it all.

Sabrina, Nick Drnaso, Granta Books.