There is some danger in writing a review of a book one loves too dearly. It’s possible to be so enthused as to find oneself incapable of anything more insightful than “Zowee, this book was super good!” That's a perfectly reasonable reaction, but it makes for a pretty dull blog post. More importantly, it utterly fails to convey what makes the book good and, therefore, is unlikely to convince anyone to give it a go. And let’s be honest, that’s what this is really about: I want you to read the books I review and then come back and tell me how right I was. Librarians are a shallow and insecure breed.
Nao Brown, the main character of Glyn Dillon’s Nao of Brown, is no stranger to insecurity, though hers is of a more profound variety. Throughout the graphic novel she is a terribly unforgiving judge of her own thoughts and impulses. This can be a tiresome and alienating trait in a character, but Nao comes off as incredibly relatable and sympathetic. A lot of the credit for that goes to Dillon’s art. His subtle watercolors capture emotions and facial expressions with a disarming accuracy. At the same time, Nao’s quite aware of her propensity for self-excoriation and throughout the book she strives for some sort of mental equilibrium. It’s always easier to root for a character who’s trying to do right by themselves, even if their efforts aren’t terribly successful. All of Dillon’s characters have their flaws laid bare, but always in a spirit of honest acceptance rather than judgment. I never felt more connection to Nao’s friend and boss Steve than when he relates to her the disastrous aftermath of a failed date. The appeal is not in watching Steve be humiliated but in watching him make peace with that humiliation and accept it as part of what shapes him.
Backing up a bit, I should mention that Nao’s psychological issues go beyond garden variety insecurity. She suffers from Purely Obsessional OCD, which means she gets trapped in loops of obsessive thought but doesn’t progress from there to the physical compulsions one generally associates with OCD (handwashing, touching light switches, etc). I didn’t mention it upfront because one of Dillon’s achievements here is the extent to which he writes Nao as a fully-fledged character, not simply a case study of a mental illness. Her obsessions, which manifest as mental images of herself doing violence to those around her, followed by crippling anxiety over the possibility that she might act on those thoughts, certainly do play a part in the plot, but they don’t define the book any more than they define Nao herself.
The main narrative arc of the book details Nao’s romance with Greg, a drunken washing machine repairman with surprisingly broad reading tastes. On their first date, Greg drinks too much and voices several incorrect and offensive assumptions about Nao’s Japanese ancestry. Some mutual fascination gets the pair over that initial hurdle and it’s soon apparent that while their relationship is sure to be challenging, it has a lot to offer both participants. They need only abandon false pride, past pain, and personal insecurities in order to let themselves interact freely in the present.
If that all sounds a bit high-minded and spiritual, that’s because the book has a strong thread of Buddhist teaching. Nao looks to the local Buddhist center and its members as a source of calm inspiration. However, Dillon is careful to show that, despite Nao’s reverence, these men of faith are no more pure or infallible than the rest of the cast.
Comic books, grounded as they are in superheroes and other genre stories, often exist in a world of absolute good and absolute evil. The incorruptibility of Superman and Lex Luthor’s fundamental selfishness are part of a grand tradition of myth and storytelling and are often just what I want to read about. But I’m also grateful for graphic novels such as The Nao of Brown that exist in a nuanced world of gray-shaded relativism. While Superman reflects human nature in broad strokes of brightly colored ink, Nao Brown’s carefully studied and finely textured watercolors capture the essence of a single character. She may not speak to everyone, but she left a clear stamp on me.
~ Andrew, Adult Services