Something has happened to my body clock recently that means I’m compelled to wake up at around 5:30 every morning. Trust me, I wouldn’t choose to live this way, but I’ve found that trying to go back to sleep just leaves me feeling dozy and dull throughout the day. But if I’m up and out of bed with something to do, I feel pretty good. Not too tired – more ready to face the day. It does have the bonus of having two free hours, all to myself, while the rest of the house is still asleep. Not completely free, I guess – the family wouldn’t appreciate an early morning drum practice – but it’s a nice, tranquil time where I can get on with some of my quieter hobbies.
One thing I’ve missed since being away at uni is reading. Ironically, my course dictates that I read all the time. Lectures, notes, textbooks, articles – the reading doesn’t end. But with all that other paper floating around it’s rare that I get the opportunity to sit back and have time to indulge in some good, old-fashioned fiction. That’s not to say I didn’t try! I brought away a fantastic short-list bookshelf of classics I was planning to get through in my first year, along with a good number of comforting old favourites. The plan was that these books could be my gateway to alternative worlds I could delve into whenever the real one seemed to be getting too heavy. But alas, with my time being taken up with so many other things, many of these books remained untouched as the year wore on. The shelf became more of an unfortunate affectation. Books waiting to be read is both a hopeful and a tragic sight.
But these two hours of quiet are a golden time for reading. I’m not too tired, my eyes and body don’t ache from the day and my mind is open. Recently I’ve been trying to cover the classics, juggling the Grapes of Wrath and the Canterbury Tales. But this morning, having woken up half an hour earlier than (the new) usual – 5am – I wanted something a bit different. I searched the spines on the shelf. And searched. And then spotted the ideal candidate. A graphic novel, not yet a classic, but of exquisite beauty – The Nao of Brown.
TNOB is unusual in the extreme. It is a portrayal of a woman who is seemingly centred on the outside but struggles with the constant internal turmoil of OCD. Her particular condition manifests itself not as a need to maintain order or be fastidiously clean (as is the most common perception of the illness), but as a series of thoughts of terrible violence. Whenever she is anxious or stressed, Nao, our half Japanese, half English protagonist experiences an overwhelming need to harm those around her in a variety of creative and alarming ways (which fortunately never come to fruition). She turns to Buddhism in an attempt to calm her anxieties and wants to sort her life out so she can finally start to move on up in her career as an artist. Nao struggles in the day to day, becoming easily fixated and going through a number of spiraling episodes where her condition catches up with her. Her art, seemingly by fate, has a tendency to intertwine with the things going on in her life – a prime example is when she meets a poetic washing-machine repairman with an uncanny resemblance to her favourite manga character who employs her favourite Buddhist symbol – an enso – as his logo, with whom she pursues a torrid relationship.
Yes, it sounds a bit mad. And it is – joyously so – and surreal. Throughout Nao’s narrative, there is also second story, told in chapters. It’s more of an allegory about a half-boy, half-conker creature who uses cunning to seek a wife who can rid him of his affliction. Bizarrely enough, the even more unusual feel of this story provides some respite from Nao’s which, at times, can feel quite overwhelming. It also gives the writer Glyn Dillon a fantastic opportunity to put his gorgeous illustrations to good use. This is, of course, the first thing you notice about any graphic novel, if TNOB’s merit were based on illustration alone, I would not be able to fault it. It is stylish, dramatic, colourful and also incredibly playful, especially considering the darker subject matter.
I also love the story, but here it comes a bit unstuck. I guess it’s a matter of taste. I, personally, find the account of her mental illness refreshing and bold. Other reviewers, however, have found the narrative either too far-fetched or too violent to be taken seriously. The book has also received criticism for over-simplifying the condition, but I am not an expert so I cannot say either way. Nao’s violent episodes are dramatic and terrifying, but to me this seems appropriate – they aren’t indulgent at all, they simply convey the internal swell and flow of Nao’s tumultuous mind. In some ways, it would almost be worse to cover up and censure these moments – the reader can fully appreciate Nao’s humanity by experiencing them with her. My main criticism is that, even though we come to learn so much about Nao as the story progresses, there is a rush to wrap things up at the end. It seems a little unfulfilling, considering the obvious thought and effort that has gone into writing about such a difficult subject matter.
Mental health is such a personal thing that any portrayal will always be deemed lacking in some way, but by reading TNOB I found myself having a greater understanding of a form of OCD I knew very little about. Her pain has been transcribed into art, wryly interwoven with comment on philosophy, relationships and culture. From the first page we are aware that very few people don’t ever get to really know Nao – she fears she would be alone if they ever did – but by being invited into her world, the reader is privileged to experience life through her eyes. I feel we can learn a lot from this. As a society we are getting more to grips with mental health and people are able to be more open. But we do have an astonishing way to go still – it is works like these, the blunt, the indelicate and the chaotically beautiful, from which we can learn the most. Because they aren’t afraid to skirt around the issues that many face daily without ever being able to speak up. It lays the personal experience bare and doesn’t mollycoddle the reader or mislead them in any way.
TNOB is a rare find, if ever you get the opportunity to have a flick through I can guarantee you’ll learn something. From Buddhism to niche Japanese anime, there’s something for everyone. This is hipster learning at its finest.