Radio Silence by Alice Oseman
Radio Silence blew me away. I imagine it’ll be one of my favourite reads of the year. It’s a rare YA novel that I can objectively appreciate and also personally connect with. I have a lot of thoughts on this book. The following review is broken into four sections: representing the modern high school experience, atmosphere, racial and sexual diversity, and attending university.
Representing the Today’s High School Experience
Upon first seeing the author photo of Alice Oseman, I thought she looked really young. She is – she was born in 1994. (That’s my baby sister’s age?!) Oseman’s age goes a long way to explaining how Oseman wrote such a realistic novel. She lived her teen and uni years just as I lived them. I found the experiences described in Radio Silence to be spot on as to my coming of age years. This includes small things (such as certain mannerisms) and bigger things (such as engagement in online communities). Frances narrates with blunt and dry humour. There’s no sense of “Haha, I’m so awkward” that sometimes happens when authors try to recreate teen life. I’ve never read text message conversations that felt so real, like they were lifted straight out of a friend’s phone. (That’s one thing that can be particularly different for adult writers to get right, I’ve found).
Apart from accurately representing what it’s like to grow up in the 2010s, Radio Silence cut close to home for me in a couple other ways. Frances’ friends at school don’t really know her. They have one impression of her (boring and studious). She doesn’t know how to show them what she’s really like. They don’t believe that person (the real Frances) could exist. I felt that hard in my last years of high school/first years of uni. I changed, and my friends’ understanding of me took a lot longer to catch up. It was a frustrating time, and one I’ve not really seen depicted in YA before (admittedly, my YA scope is very small).
The other aspect of the book that I deeply related to was the lack of romance and the friendship between Frances and Aled. My best friend is a guy. It has taken many of years of us being ‘just’ friends for people to start accepting that there aren’t any romantic feelings between us. I would love to see more strong friendships, like Frances and Aled’s, in YA. The lack of romance also mirrors my high school experience. My friends and I didn’t date much; we weren’t searching for our one true loves. Our friendships were definitely more important than our romantic relationships at that time.
Radio Silence captures a particular atmosphere that I hadn’t previously experienced in YA. The characters live in the real world, but the mystery of where Carys went and what Radio Silence (the underground YouTube podcast that the novel centers on) lends a mysterious air to the story. Oseman has said Welcome to Night Vale inspired Radio Silence – it definitely has a similar vibe. I’m also reminded of Stranger Things, with its focus on friendships in a spooky setting. Frances’ first person narration is down to earth and realistic, but it also gives a particular insight into one bright and creative girl’s mind.
Sexuality and Racial Diversity
I have a read few interviews with Oseman (who is White and British) where she stated she dislikes her debut novel Solitaire for its lack of racial diversity. She made a concentrated effort to improve diversity in Radio Silence. Frances is British-Ethiopian, with a White mother and an Ethiopian father (who does not play a role in the story). Frances’ race is not integral to the story (as it is, for example, in The Hate U Give). As I am White myself, I don’t feel confident evaluating whether Frances is a good example of biracial representation. I applaud Oseman’s efforts to diversify her cast of characters, though. (Supporting characters include Daniel [Korean] and Raine [Indian]).
The characters are also diverse in their sexuality. Frances is bisexual and Aled is asexual. Aled’s sexuality is something that he works out throughout the book. It’s not something that he immediately knows. Frances’ sexuality is similar to her racial identity, in that that’s just a part of her identity – it’s not a big deal. I appreciate the ace representation and normalization of bisexuality.
“You Don’t Have to Go to College”
I have mixed feelings on the “you don’t have to go to university” message. I agree that kids shouldn’t be pressured into attending university just because it’s the thing to do. A university degree does not guarantee employment, let alone employment in your desired field. University also isn’t the only choice for higher education. High school students should be made aware that they have a variety of options and that they they have the power in choosing what they want to do, be that art college or world travel or cabinet making or university. Personally, I think if you’re going to pursue further education, you should at least have some general idea of what you might want to do afterwards. I think few people are privileged enough to engage in higher education purely for education’s sake. My experiences with formal education have been thankully positive. I have always enjoyed being a good student, and I have always known the path I wanted to take through higher education (English degree, followed by MLIS, followed by career as a librarian). I am trying not to let my own experience colour my exploration of university in Radio Silence too much, as I understand my experience is the exception, not the norm. Now that I’ve laid out my general thoughts on the topic, here’s what I think about some characters’ attitudes towards university in Radio Silence.
This section contains spoilers for events towards the end of the novel.
I found Frances’ experience very sad. She had always been a committed student, not because she enjoyed education nor due to any pressure from friends or family, but because she just thought it was always what she had to do. Even with a mother encouraging her to take a break from studying and enjoy other aspects of life and a teacher encouraging her to pursue art, Frances committed herself to something that she didn’t really connect with. I wonder, how did she end up in that situation? How could that have been avoided? Aled, on the other hand, never actually wanted to go to university but pursued that path because of his abusive mother. Aled’s disdain for university felt more grounded to me than Frances’.
Carys gets her own paragraph. I hope I’m not being too cynical when I say I found Cary’s experience exaggerated. Carys fails all her exams in her final year of high school (I interpret this as meaning she didn’t graduate), yet manages to find a well-paid job in London, with no connections or experience. At one point, a character asks Carys how she got her job running workshops for the National Theatre without any qualifications (423). Carys replies that they didn’t ask her for any. And she doesn’t have any work experience. Really?
I imagine Carys’ situation is exceptional, not something high school students should count on. I don’t mean to come across as a person for whom school grades are the be all and end all. Some students will face immense pressure and difficulties in their high school studies. Some students won’t have access to resources that might have helped them succeed. Carys’ story, however, comes off to me as wishful thinking. I wouldn’t want students who are struggling in school to think, “Oh, I’ll just flunk my exams and get a great job with no qualifications or experience anyway”. Even though I have tried to not let my experiences influence my attitude towards Radio Silence’s university message, of course they have! So I’m curious – am I too biased in my assessment of Carys? What are your thoughts on higher education and finding employment?
Despite everything I’ve said above, I do think students face more pressure to go to university than they should. Radio Silence could and should be an eye opener for some students, whose talents and dreams can be found outside academia.
The Bottom Line:
Radio Silence exemplifies what contemporary young adult novels can be. Highly recommended for its realistic depiction of teen life, including diverse racial and sexual identities and commentary on the pressure to succeed academically.
- Author website
- Interview @ The Guardian
- Review by Cynthia @ Afterwritten
- Review by Danika @ The Lesbrary
- Review @ Teen Librarian Toolbox
- Review @ Publisher’s Weekly