At first glance, The Nao of Brown is a cute, unassuming book. The vibrant, earthy tones mixed with the story of a Nao Brown, a Japanese/English woman who works at a novelty toy shop. However, as the book develops, the dark underbelly of the characters and story begins to unfold, and the book becomes something far more, nuanced, complicated and unsettling.
Nao has an intense case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her urges aren’t so much the endearing compulsion of keeping everything neat and just so, but more the having urges to commit horrible, violent acts on people who intrude upon her sense of order. She seeks some sense of peace in the local Buddhist Center, but even there she’s not without her dark compulsions.
Later on, she meets Gregory, a washing-machine repair man whose face reminds her of a popular Japanese plush. The two start dating, but Nao quickly learns that Gregory has his own dark compulsion: alcoholism. Most dates end with Gregory in a drunken stupor and Nao finds herself more and more struggling with her violent compulsions.
The Nao of Brown’s key success is its ability to blend the everyday lives of people with personal insights into the darkness that lies within each person. Everyone is struggling with some inner-darkness that can often be controlling and overwhelming. These traits do not make the characters abhorrent as much as it makes them sympathetic and tragic.
Writer and artist Glyn Dillon often uses sharp, intrusive images in order to show how Nao’s compulsions interrupt her live and disturb her sense of balance. While the novel is often effective at allowing readers a peek into the minds of characters, Dillon uses the graphic novel to use both words and images to show the jarring and intrusive effects of Nao’s OCD.
On its own aesthetic merits, The Nao of Brown is a gorgeous book. Dillon’s pencil work is fantastic and detailed. It alone has a sense of texture and visual richness that many solid books lack. His use of colors adds to that. Instead of simply filling in, he often allows the colors to have different shades, adding an extra sense of depth to the artwork.
And while it’s the art that stands out the most in this book, Dillon’s writing is fantastic. He’s able to give the characters in the story an idiosyncratic nature without resorting to trite quirk. Nao is rather shy, but often brashly enthusiastic about her passions, sometimes a bit on edge when she gets anxious and prone to a bit of irrationality. Any of these traits could be used as simple whimsy, but Dillon knows how to balance them in order to make them appear in the right moments.
Dillon uses certain scenes and sequences to build the overall story into something rich. A lot of the conversations in the book seem to be about incidental things, but Dillon always uses it to tease out something compelling about the characters or use it to catapult the character into an action. Much like real life, most of what is said is not to substance of a conversation, but the ideas behind it.
The book often drifts off into areas another book might have removed. Nao’s relationship with her roommate is one of her key emotional anchors of the story, but her roommate often fails to drive the story forward. Likewise, the story is also interrupted by occasional interludes into an unusual sci-fi story that doesn’t have a clear connection to the plot or themes, but feels like the kind of story Nao would enjoy.
There are plenty of stories that connect to the audience through mundane life, but what makes The Nao of Brown resonate is that jarring look at the darkness within all of us. Without that, The Nao of Brown would still be a good book, but its willingness to recognize that interior darkness of humanity and the journey every person faces with that sense of hidden darkness makes the book an astounding, masterful work.
© 2015 James Blake Ewing