Book Review: “Are You Listening?” by Tillie Walden

Blurb & Info

Bea is on the run. And then, she runs into Lou.

This chance encounter sends them on a journey through West Texas, where strange things follow them wherever they go. The landscape morphs into an unsettling world, a mysterious cat joins them, and they are haunted by a group of threatening men. To stay safe, Bea and Lou must trust each other as they are driven to confront buried truths. The two women share their stories of loss and heartbreak — and a startling revelation about sexual assault — culminating in an exquisite example of human connection.

Published: September 10, 2019

Publisher: First Second (imprint of Macmillan Publishers)

Pages: 320

Series: standalone

Content Warning(s): death of a parent, description of sexual assault

Review

This graphic novel is part of my 2021 A to Z Reading Challenge! It’s actually the first one on the list, haha. I read this back in… early February, I think, but I’ve had a tough time assembling my thoughts on this story into something coherent.

I was inspired to pick up this graphic novel after reading Tillie Walden’s previous work, which is On a Sunbeam (read my review here). In On a Sunbeam, Walden easily waltzes along the tightrope strung between fantasy and science fiction, and the whimsical — sometimes even nonsensical — world-building was so beautiful that I couldn’t bring myself to slow down long enough to question it. There was just enough depth and clarity in On a Sunbeam that I didn’t feel as though I was being tossed headfirst into an abyss, but in Are You Listening? Walden dives so deeply into magical realism that, upon reaching the final page, my first reaction was, “what the heck did I just read?”

Liminality is one of the big themes of the book, and part of my dilemma was how everything about the story feels fleeting and not quite fully corporeal. I think Walden handled this style with a level of grace, thoughtfulness, and depth that I would trust few other writers or illustrators to achieve, but I was constantly wondering why? why? why? and rarely getting an answer — and the answers I did receive only spawned more questions.

This isn’t to say that Are You Listening? is a bad graphic novel — far from it. It is neither poorly written nor poorly illustrated. There were a few points where I was struggling to hold back tears, and was doing so with increasing desperation because crying meant I would have to put the book down and stop reading long enough to wipe my eyes and collect myself. Walden conveys intense, soul-shattering emotion so, so beautifully here, by building up tiny details into a portrait of heartbreak and frustration that, when you can finally step back and see the whole thing, your own heart breaks alongside Lou’s and Bea’s.

The relationship between Lou and Bea is the linchpin of the book. It is absolutely beautiful to see a friendship between two queer women with an age gap, and watching them learn to trust each other feels so raw and genuine. The core of Walden’s strength as a storyteller is in the way she crafts her characters; they are allowed to be messy, misdirected, confused, and angry — Bea especially; she feels like a completely believable teenager who’s so full of wrath she’ll do whatever it takes to get as far away from home as she can, and who won’t ever look back. I loved how Lou respected Bea’s autonomy and never attempted to take that away from her, and how Lou is dealing with her own internal crisis and trauma completely unrelated to Bea.

Overall, this is an absolutely engrossing, wonderful graphic novel. I loved the characters and the relationships that developed, the themes were well developed and thoroughly and appropriately explored, the characters’ emotional wounds were treated with the gravity and compassion they deserved… but the magical realism was so overpoweringly… unhinged might be the right word, or maybe even ungrounded, though I worry the latter makes even less sense… Suffice to say, the magical realism will either make or break your reading experience. I am choosing to give Are You Listening? a full five stars because, even though I struggled with that element, everything else worked so beautifully that I feel anything less would be a disservice to the quality of the book.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of 5 stars


Here another review of Are You Listening? by Hillary Brown of The Comics Journal.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “Are You Listening?” by Tillie Walden

Add yours

  1. Sound like one I might like. I believe it’s the first I’m hearing of this one, but On a Sunbeam was very popular when it came out. I haven’t tried that one yet, but I’m leaning more toward this Are You Listening.

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    1. On A Sunbeam is definitely more lighthearted (or at least, I remember it being more lighthearted) than Are You Listening? If you prefer books that still have a lot of whimsy/weirdness but also a serious undertone, I’d recommend Are You Listening? over the other On A Sunbeam. I hope you enjoy this when you get a chance to pick it up!

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