Book Review

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

some thoughts on toronto trams

EXPAND: Strangely untimely despite attempts to be the opposite: asking questions about now in a way that doesn’t feel relevant to the present????


EXPAND: Use of violent sexualised murder of a woman as an empty background plot device


It’s now weeks since I read Sabrina. I’ve got ahead of myself. The above two sentences included, I currently have six barely-written blog posts at various stages of completion and I just need to serve myself some strong coffee and knuckle the fuck down.

I quit one of my jobs last week as it was taking up waaaay too much time, predominantly due to it being too far away from where I live and Toronto’s tram network being inconsistent. The trip would take anything from forty minutes to two hours and I’d regularly have to walk many kilometres at one end or the other (or in the middle) when the trams suddenly stopped for no given reason. I’d be waiting in the cold and the rain and the dark, and then on the trams things aren’t more comfortable: I once had someone nearly drop their (unlit) crack pipe on me, and I saw more people trying to provoke others into fights than I’d ever seen working in late night bars in London. The Toronto trams are not lovely places to be, and they’re not even punctual in their unloveliness: rapidity, in a form of transit, forgives many sins, which is something the 501 (as it is named) fails to do.

So, with an oomph I am back to being underemployed. Not unemployed, of course (I am a millennial poet so naturally subsist through performing multiple jobs: I’ll do anything to keep myself safe from the nine-to-five grind while also not needing to drink terrible wine.) Eurgh, it doesn’t matter, does it?

I’m not hyper-depressed, I’m just dangerously flat. Bored is the wrong word, I think the right word is maybe stressed. Anxious. I’m gonna have to pay for another GP appointment later this week as I’ve nearly run out of medication again. This is particularly frustrating as I’m like one week away from full eligibility to free healthcare (though not prescriptions, obvs).

I think I’m whinging too much. I’m not socialising at all. I don’t feel like socialising. I just like reading and walking the dog. I’ve bought a hands-free dog lead so now I can read and walk Cubby on pavements. This is maybe a red psychological flag lolololol. One reason why I need to get another job again is so I can afford some therapy. And/or gin.

I’m still writing a lot, I’m banging out a new poem most days, but the last couple of months I haven’t really had any time to just sit in front of a laptop and bleeeeed. Most of the blog posts I’ve put out over the last couple of months (while I was waiting tables on the other side of town) were written on my phone on those dreaded trams, shielding myself from inter-addict aggression (also one time I saw a big child slap a stranger’s baby!) with finger-bashing phone typing and weird experimental music. Sometimes I’d fall asleep on the trams, drifting into awkward dreams and juddering awake when I dropped my book or when someone barged into me. The 501 is not a happy place or an energising place, not for anyone.

The rhythm of the wheels and the electric engines are soporific, they ease you and slip you into a soft vibration, your body resonates with the prolonged slap of metal wheel onto metal track and everything shakes. Windows are thrown open and slammed shut, people shout and people whisper and people crowd together or stand purposefully apart. The trams are the trams are the trams are-

Less a part of my life now, at least until Winter comes.


Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina was the graphic novel that was infamously long-listed for the Booker Prize last year. Infamously because a graphic novel (or comic book) had never been longlisted before and many of the snobbish, culturally conservative types who like literature found this distasteful. Not the book itself, but the idea of it, because of its form. Obviously, I’m not here to weigh in on the validity of its award nomination (should the Booker’s definition of a “novel” be as wide as the Turner’s definition of “art”? – this sounds like a clever sentence. Is it?), but I’m instead here to sling more of my weird, barely coherent opinions together while my coffee boils and before I head off to dive ever deeper into the currently-running Hot Docs documentary festival lol.

Sabrina is an interesting text, all about masculinity, in particular the online radicalisation of misogynists. In this regard, it’s very timely, as right wing terrorism is increasingly a problem (last week was the anniversary here in Toronto of that time an incel terrorist murdered people with a vehicle), and Drnaso addresses this topic head on. A man, overwhelmed with grief, turns to alt-right blogs and alt-right shock jocks as a reassuring (though dangerous) voice following the murder of his girlfriend. He moves in with an old schoolfriend, a soldier, while he recovers, and the text is a deep study of male emotional repression, patterns of toxic masculinity and the way men perform – or fail to perform – in certain ways to other men. This is, of course, an important topic for me in my own more-polished writing (see, and Sabrina is a text that tackles grief and mental illness and online radicalisation in a way I found engaging and moving at times, though I did feel the book had its flaws.

Basically, the way in which the novel felt a bit anachronistic was through its use of male violence against women as a background event. Sabrina is the name of the murdered woman, and though she gets to have the title of the piece and her death is the root of the trauma of the male characters’ lives, by keeping her character so minimal and her death so gory, Drnaso uses a very old-school trope of incorporating salacious sexualised murder as an easy way to “draw readers in” . Or to make clear moral statements, as it’s considered by [pretty much] everyone that sexually motivated murder is always unforgivable.

I think Sabrina would have been stronger had the grieving man been suffering a health or accident-related bereavement, and (in my opinion) the use of violence provided an unnecessarily blunt narrative edge. A woman in the background who suffers a near-unsayable death is not a sensitive depiction of reality, even though the gentle, thoughtful, depictions of the sad, lonely, angry men at the centre of the text are. By using Sabrina’s name as a title for the work, Sabrina implies it will be about Sabrina, but it isn’t, it’s about her partner and her partner’s friend, both of whom are men struggling – and basically failing – to become adults. Or, at least, men as they believe men should be.

It’s an intriguing book with a lot going for it. But is it perfect? Absolutely not.

I gotta go.

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1 comment on “Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

  1. Pingback: The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem edited by Jeremy Noel-Tod – Triumph Of The Now

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