by Tillie Walden. First Second, September 2019. 320 p. Ill. ISBN 9781250207562 (paperback), $17.99.
Reviewed June 2020
Claire Payne, Web Services and Data Librarian, Stony Brook University, email@example.com
Are You Listening?, Tillie Walden’s latest graphic narrative, is a stirring intervention in the road trip novel canon. Walden introduces us to 18-year-old Bea and 27-year-old Lou, both headed away from a shared hometown in rural Texas. After a coincidental run-in at a gas station, Bea and Lou begin travelling together. Bea is on the run; Lou is allegedly on the way to see family, but equally adrift. As the days pass, these two protagonists are drawn closer together, sharing their traumas, their queerness, and a series of uncanny encounters with otherworldly figures. Though the book begins and ends grounded in reality, the middle of the novel reroutes the reader into a magical realist West Texas, where sinister monsters and unlikely landscapes help build a quiet emotional intimacy between Bea and Lou.
Like the tone of the story, Walden’s palette is muted and atmospheric. While the characters of the novel are expressive and finely drawn, it is Walden’s exterior landscapes that are rendered in the most unrelenting detail. The emotional loads borne by Bea and Lou in heightened moments are made physical in the craggy hills and gnarled trees that they encounter. At the same time, critical arcs of memory and confession are brought to life in compellingly sparse panels. At points where the novel slips into unreality, so too do the delineations between panels waver. The novel’s expressive hand-lettering ties word and image together to create a thoroughly engrossing reading/viewing experience.
This affecting story of intergenerational queer friendship would be a meaningful addition to any library’s graphic novel stacks, and will be particularly at home in collections that serve older teens and emerging adults. Campuses should consider purchasing this title for both Walden’s haunting artwork and her adept handling of themes of loss and sexual assault.