Are You Listening?
by Tillie Walden
“Everyone, everything has potential for magic. You just gotta be standing somewhere in the world and in the body that lets you see it.”
Published Sept. 10, 2019 by First Second
Genre: contemporary/magical realism graphic novel
Date finished: Oct. 11, 2019
Content warnings: sexual assault, parent death
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.
My thoughts (spoiler free)
Are you listening? Because that’s the sound of me crying over this book.
After loving On a Sunbeam last year, I had no idea how Tillie Walden could possibly top that. But I think she’s done it with Are You Listening? – or at least, created a stunning, breathtaking new graphic novel that will stay with me for a very, very long time.
Are You Listening? takes place in Texas and follows two women, Bea and Lou, who by chance end up on the road together, driving across the state. The plot is meandering and takes a back seat (haha – road trip pun) to the characters themselves and an exploration of trauma, grief, and human connection – with a dash of magical realism.
The emotional core of this book is in its characters. Bea, an eighteen year old runaway, trying to get as far away from home as she can and refusing to talk about why. Lou, a twenty-seven year old mechanic who recently lost her mother and wants to get away from her everyday life and process that loss.
What is it about road trip stories that is perfect for these themes of healing and growth? Not that I’m complaining.
Something that I love about how Tillie Walden writes female characters is that she lets them be angry. They don’t always deal with their emotions rationally; they act out, yell at each other. They’re imperfect and therefore feel so real. It makes perfect sense to me, given what both of them have gone through, that they would act in this way.
Watching Bea and Lou move from virtual strangers who refuse to tell each other anything meaningful, to practically family who trust each other more than just about anyone, is absolutely beautiful. I’m such a sucker for found family, and once again Tillie Walden delivers. I basically cried through the last 100 pages because of their relationship and because I’m that predictable.
This book also includes a subplot with a stray cat that Bea and Lou are trying to return to its home and a group of strange men who are also searching for it. And the magical realism! Both the artwork and the story add a layer of surrealism that somehow manages to make this book feel both dreamlike and even more real. Because of course there are strange sky bridges and women who appear out of nowhere to give you life advice – that’s just how Texas is, right?
Also, can we talk about this art??
Every time I read one of Tillie Walden’s books, I appreciate the art all over again. The colors are vibrant and strange and beautiful – lots of reds and purples and yellows – to show the strangeness of this world that we’ve stepped into. I wanted to fly through this book to find out what happened, but at the same time I wanted to linger over every panel and study it like a painting. The landscape, the characters, the light – it feels otherworldly but familiar at the same time.
Basically, you all need to go out and read this book immediately. It made me cry so much that I had to stop and put the book aside because I couldn’t see through my tears.
Are You Listening? is a book about two women learning to listen to each other and the world around them while processing their own personal grief and trauma. Stunning, heart-wrenching, and magical, it’s not a story I will forget anytime soon.
“When something horrible happens, or something amazing…really, anything that’s big, it makes you feel like mountains could shatter, or the sky could disappear… Well, most places, mountains stay put. Sky stays in one piece. Kind of cruel, really. But here, everything is listening.”