The Nao of Brown by Glyn Dillon review

by Naomi Alderman, Guardian, Nov 22, 2012

Naomi Alderman enjoys the ride in a Buddhist-themed graphic novel

London, UK -- Graphic novels are peculiarly suited to the discussion of Buddhist themes. That frozen moment in each pane, paused for us to examine, more details revealing themselves the harder we look, has something in common with meditation and the desire to appreciate the "nowness" of each moment of life. The Book of Pages by David Whiteland is a wonderful meditation on Buddhism and technology, and Deepak Chopra has produced a comic book about the Buddha.

Illustration from The Nao of Brown

The Nao of Brown is an engrossing and beautiful addition to the list. Nao is a charming half-Japanese woman with a bob and cute shoes, who works in a shop selling Japanese ephemera. She's obsessed with a set of Japanese comics called Ichi (Dillon has built a dedicated Twitter account and website), and falls in love with a washing-machine repairman who looks like one of the characters, bearded father figure Nobodaddy. She's an artist. She rides a bicycle.

She'd be a tooth-achingly sweet "pixie dream girl" if she didn't also suffer from sudden, invasive, compulsive thoughts of harming other people. Graphic novels excel at moving smoothly from the internal to external world, combining the action and intensity of a movie with the access to inner life of a novel. When Nao's sitting in an aeroplane, we see her vision of herself opening the emergency door. When she's confronted by a pregnant woman, she's overwhelmed by thoughts of stabbing the swollen belly. We, like Nao, are sometimes initially confused about whether she's really done these things or not.

Her meditation, therefore, and her interest in Buddhist drawing, aren't just an adorable pastime – she feels constantly on the verge of breakdown. Dillon's illustrative style is clear and crisp, but incredibly expressive; the motion of Nao's shoulders, the tilt of her head as she's talking, let us know that she may be about to have another compulsive episode.

The book is very funny about the experience of learning meditation and Buddhism – however hard we try to rise above ourselves, we're always irritatingly anchored, and the beaming faces of the slightly over-keen teachers at Nao's local meditation centre tell the reader it's OK to laugh, even while Nao is taking it all extremely seriously.

Nao's story is interspersed with the elliptical tale of Ichi character Pictor, a half-man, half-tree creature who, despite having a conker for a head, goes off to join the army. The rich, illustrative techniques of the Pictor pages, with their nods towards the decorated margins of a medieval Book of Hours, form a neat contrast to Nao's story. We can see why Nao might be drawn to these strange, serene images with their intricate detail demanding close examination.

The style contrasts, very deliberately, with the sketchy, sometimes impressionistic, illustration of Nao's own story. The narrative is meandering and thoughtful, taking in Nao's flatmate, her family and her friend and boss at the toy store. There's a light plot: Nao fails to see that her friend is in love with her, and her relationship with the washing-machine repairman is inevitably threatened by her OCD.

The end reads as Hollywood romantic comedy in a way that's unworthy of what went before. But then, as Buddhism would tell us, to focus on the destination is to look in the wrong place. The matter of life, and of a book, lies in the journey, not its end, and this novel is a very fine journey indeed.

• The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman is published by Viking.