Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (HarperCollins Children's Books, 25 February 2016)
To appreciate just how blown away I was by RADIO SILENCE, you may need to revisit the review I wrote about a year ago for SOLITAIRE, Oseman’s debut novel. I couldn’t figure out how I felt about that book at all. I wasn’t sure if I actually liked it—I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, I thought it was boring, I thought it was vaguely interesting. It was bizarre. But I did think highly of Oseman’s writing and I was hopeful that one day she might write a book that appealed to me more. And you know what? She did it right away, with her second book. RADIO SILENCE is just the most exhilarating and gripping roller coaster of emotions about a podcast (!!!), and I know exactly how I feel about it: I love it, 100%.
Meet Frances Janvier.
I was going to Cambridge, and I was going to get a good job and earn lots of money, and I was going to be happy.
Frances is in Year 12. She’s Head Girl at school and she does brilliantly in exams. She’s not good at or interested in much else—but she’s secretly a huge fan of this podcast called Universe City. Nobody knows who the anonymous Creator of the podcast is, but Frances posts fanart of the podcast on her Tumblr, and one day, the Creator messages her to ask her if she would like to work with them to produce art for the podcast. Frances is of course overjoyed. But soon she realises that the Creator is actually someone she’s met in real life: Aled Last, the twin brother of Carys Last, a girl Frances used to be friends with before Carys ran away a few years ago. Aled is a high achiever like Frances, a year older than her and headed for an elite university. Frances and Aled become friends very quickly, but when the podcast goes viral, their friendship is tested. After Aled goes off to university, Frances and Aled are even more isolated from each other and Frances doesn’t know what to do when Aled seems to be slipping away. But it all seems to come back to one thing: Carys, and what happened to make her run away.
Yes, RADIO SILENCE revolves around a weird and awesome podcast: Universe City, which turns a university into a strange and fantastical place, where the agender protagonist, Radio, is trapped. You can listen to excerpts of it on Youtube! Oseman acknowledges that the idea of this podcast was inspired by Welcome To Night Vale, which, as you may know, I’m a huge fan of. I really enjoyed reading the excerpts from Universe City transcripts in the book; I could actually believe that this could be a real podcast and I could see how it might attract a fanbase. I would definitely be a Universe City fan if it was real. The language in the transcripts is so beautiful and dreamy.
The plot of this book is just so fascinating and it’s got so many different elements to it: Internet fame and the terrors that can come with that, a great mystery present in the podcast itself, an abusive parent, the pressures of school and university. It’s not centred around a boy/girl romance. In fact, it’s not centred around any romance at all. There is very minimal romance in this book (there’s some queer romance but it’s not the focus). It’s just about Aled and Frances’ amazing platonic friendship and I loved them both so much. Frances, especially, is the best narrator.
The only person I’ve had an actual crush on in my life is Carys Last. Well, unless you count people I didn’t know in real life, such as Sebastian Stan, Natalie Dormer, Alfie Enoch, Kristen Stewart, etc.
HASHTAG RELATABLE. (Natalie Dormer and Kristen Stewart… *swoon*) I just identified with Frances so much on so many levels: how she felt like she wasn’t good at anything apart from studying and doing well in exams, like she wasn’t interesting or cool and didn’t have any hobbies or whatever, and also like all the friends she had at school didn’t really know her. But she was interesting and cool and she had the cutest fashion sense and I loved her so much. She just needed to find the people who would appreciate her and to whom she could show her real self. And she had a really lovely relationship with her mum, who was so supportive and funny. It was a dramatic foil for Aled and Carys’ mother, who is horrifically vile and abusive. The book very effectively made me terrified of Aled’s mother.
I do really like how this book addresses the problems of going to university: the pressures of trying to get in, how you might spend your whole life just assuming that you have to go to university, you will go to university, because there isn’t any other option, and you’ve never been allowed to think that you could do anything else. And once you get in, it’s not all roses either. Some universities are just extremely stressful environments and a lot of people I know here at Oxford are always saying how it’d be so much easier if they’d gone somewhere with a less ridiculous workload and lower pressure. Everyone at Oxbridge is just so so clever and hardworking and the expectations are so high; it’s impossible to shake the feeling that you’re not good enough or you’re not working hard enough. I know so many people who aren’t happy here.
On top of all this, RADIO SILENCE is wonderfully diverse, with regards to race and sexuality. Frances is mixed race (British-Ethiopian) and bi. There are several other bi and gay characters, and one who identifies on the asexual spectrum. There are also a couple of non-white characters other than Frances as well. Daniel Jun, who’s Head Boy at Frances’ school and has been best friends with Aled since they were children, is gay and Korean—I loved finding out more and more about his character! As a bi Chinese girl it’s really hard to find a lot of characters that I can identify with in that way, and although this novel didn’t have any bi Chinese girls, it still contained more than one character that was both not white and not straight. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a YA book that had that, so I was pretty delighted.
I did think there was a lot packed into this one book and as such, there were some gaps that could have been filled to make this book even better. There were just a few times in the book when I was like “I haven’t seen so-and-so in a while, it would be great if I could find out what they think about all this!” I would have liked characters like Frances’ mum and Daniel to make a few more appearances. I also thought the book was going to give me more answers than it actually did. But honestly, I loved the book as it is and I pretty much raced through it in one sitting. It’s a really stunning and unusual, and infinitely relatable coming-of-age book rooted in the digital age.