Review time! with The Nao of Brown
The Nao of Brown is Glyn Dillon’s labor of love – he worked on it for four years, apparently, and it shows on every page. It costs $24.95 for a nice, big hardcover (it’s 205 pages long) and published by SelfMadeHero Books. Just so you know!
This book has been getting a ton of love, and for the most part, it deserves it. Had I read this sooner, it would have been in strong contention for best comic of the year, and I might have to make a special exception for it next year just to highlight it again. I have a problem with the ending, but endings are really hard to pull off, so I’m willing to forgive Dillon a bit for that. The star of the book, Nao Brown, is a young lady with an English mother and a Japanese father (who are divorced) who returns to London after visiting her dad in Japan and gets a job at a high-end toy store while she works on her own art. She attends a Buddhist center and becomes smitten with a large washing machine repairman named Gregory. He looks like a character from her favorite anime, which attracts her, and they begin a rather off-kilter romance. Oh, and Nao suffers from Purely Obsessional Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She fantasizes about killing several characters throughout the course of the book and has really, really low self-esteem. She’s especially uncomfortable around children, which is something of a key plot point.
The story is wonderful until the very end, when it stumbles a bit. Dillon gets the characters perfectly – not only Nao and Gregory, but Steve Meek, Nao’s friend who hires her for the toy store, and Tara, her flatmate, as well as the tertiary characters like the people at the Buddhist center, the waitress that Steve fancies, and Nao’s mother. He nails the dialogue beautifully – each character has their own voice, and he never overwrites, allowing his art to speak for itself quite often. At certain times in the book, he tells a fable about a boy with a nut for a head (don’t ask), which is completely different in tone from the rest of the book. Nao’s attempts to meet Gregory after she sees him the first time and becomes obsessed with him and then their halting attempts to connect with each other are perfect – weird and uncomfortable but real. In a standard romantic comedy, Nao would realize that Gregory isn’t for her and that she and Steve are meant to be together, but Dillon doesn’t go that route, because it would be too easy. Nao and Gregory do get along, and with Nao’s fixation on Gregory as an anime character, along with Steve’s inability to break the ice, it becomes too complicated for them to take the obvious step. In that way, it’s also like real life – circumstances don’t always lead to a neat and tidy ending, but that doesn’t mean the ending isn’t logical.
There’s also the case of Nao not understanding what’s wrong with her, which it seems Dillon is trying to imply. He never uses a clinical term to describe her in the book – it’s on the dust jacket, and Dillon has expounded upon that in interviews – but nobody ever talks about it in the book itself. Her mother dismisses her “habits” rather casually, which makes me think that Nao does not really understand what’s wrong with her. In the climax of the book, she and Gregory hash out some of their issues, and Dillon writes it wonderfully, laying Nao’s insecurities open in a raw scene that gets to the core of both characters, and it’s extremely powerful writing (and art). Dillon has said he didn’t want the book to be about explaining Nao’s issues, and until the end, he does a good job walking a fine line between not explaining anything and explaining just enough. We see Nao’s issues play out, so we don’t need to know too much about it. But then …
The book doesn’t end as strongly as it could. It becomes weirdly melodramatic, with horrible (but not permanent) things happening to both Gregory and Nao, and then a time jump that shows Nao four years later … with some new challenges. I don’t want to give anything away, but it seems that Dillon doesn’t really confront her issues. Dillon says in interviews that he read a lot about the condition, so he knows more about it than I do, but it seems that Nao is just … better. She narrates that it’s not so, but I think the jump forward in time robs the story of some of its power – everything seems wrapped up too neatly. A traumatic event can certainly change someone radically, but there is a process to it, and Dillon skips all of that. Sure, the book was getting long, and as Dillon noted, he didn’t want to get into explaining things, but it’s a bit jarring. Maybe it’s just me (I’m sure it is!), but it feels like the complexity of the major part of the book was replaced with simple solutions. It’s a bit disappointing.
Most people have been raving about Dillon’s art, and it really is astonishing. He paints most of it straight from pencils, and the watercolors add a poignant, almost nostalgic air to the work. The characters look like real people, even Nao, who’s gorgeous but in a completely naturalistic way. Dillon really nails the facial expressions of the characters as they talk, letting their body language tell half the story, especially when Nao first sees Gregory and then meets him and tries to get him to ask her out, as it’s so clear she’s uncomfortable with “seducing” him but is determined nevertheless. The shifts into her fantasy world, when she imagines killing people, is subtly and effectively done. In the climax, Dillon uses red very well to bring the emotions to the surface, as he does in an earlier scene where Steve tells an embarrassing story (not the one above; a different embarrassing story). The story-within-a-story is finely drawn in a different style, highlighting its Japanese origins, and Dillon mentions that he doesn’t ink those pages either, which is impressive because they’re so precisely etched. The book is stunningly beautiful, and I’d probably recommend it just for that.
Despite my slight reservations about the ending, The Nao of Brown is a challenging, marvelous, and gorgeous comic that shows us fascinating, three-dimensional people living their lives the best way they can. It’s a masterpiece, and I really can’t recommend it enough.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆