Book review: ‘The Listeners’

Strong protagonist and inventive premise carry this unique novel

Tannahill’s book is a quick and inventive read.
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The Listeners, by Jordan Tannahill, is a thought-provoking examination of how relationships, mental health issues, gender expectations, and the media can all intersect.

As with all the novels on the 2021 Giller Prize shortlist, The Listeners is carefully plotted and expertly written. Tannahill’s prose is consistently sharp and darkly funny, but his story’s inventive premise is what pushes it into the “must-read” category.

It starts when protagonist Claire Devon first hears The Hum.

The sound comes to her one night when she’s spending time with Paul, her husband, after a typical day of teaching. This strange ringing quickly gets under Claire’s skin—she can’t rest until she’s discovered its source. Even more bizarre is that Paul can’t hear it.

When sleepless nights turn into manic days, The Hum puts Claire on the edge of a breakdown that culminates in an incident at work. Paul’s support has its limits. He and their mouthy teenage daughter Ashley are losing patience with the woman they love.

Claire is validated when Kyle, one of her students, says he’s also been hearing The Hum. They strike up a friendship to investigate the sound, but the connotations surrounding their relationship prove damaging when exposed.

The Listeners is built on the back of its characters. It’s easy to empathize with Claire as her quest to understand The Hum ostracizes her from family, work, and friends.

She’s a relatable 21st-century everywoman who loves her daughter, fears organized religion, and hates the patriarchy. Her cleverness should have probably taken her further in life, but she’s happy with the way things are until The Hum so rudely invades her life.

Kyle is the novel’s strongest supporting character. He’s soft, likable, and certainly less hard-headed than most. His overbearing and often aggressive mother not believing The Hum provides a believable motivation for why he’d confide in Claire.

Despite being an undeniable character study at heart, The Listeners excels as a social commentary on the power of beliefs to unite and divide people.

The Hum becomes a gateway for Claire to meet people who understand her deeply while simultaneously driving away those she loves the most. It opens her eyes to new possibilities by challenging her pre-established ways of thinking and understanding.

The novel’s willingness to explore The Hum from all perspectives is quite poignant. Tannahill explores its meaning and purpose through several lenses, including gender, sexuality, and the media.

The Listeners packs a lot into a short book. With that said, some of its characters may have benefitted from additional development across a few extra chapters.

Paul is introduced to the reader as a nuanced character but becomes little more than a caricature of a disgruntled man as the story progress. Meanwhile, their daughter, Ashley, is often just an adversarial teenager offering little more than complaints and expletives.

Some also might find the book’s ending divisive. There isn’t much to be said without risking a veer into spoiler territory, but it’s eventful, to say the least.

Nonetheless, even with some shortcomings, The Listeners is an engrossing read that deserves recognition among the best Canadian books of the last year.

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