Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (Spoiler-Free)

With only one more year of school to go, Frances is more focused than ever on what’s been the goal of the last few years of her life: Cambridge University. And she’s well on her way to achieving it, with an excellent work ethic, consistently high grades, and the position of head girl, but very few friends who truly know her. One evening, however, a boy she knows drunkenly lets slip that he’s the mysterious creator of her favourite podcast, and they discover a friendship like neither of them have ever known… but this new relationship is tested by Aled and his podcast’s sudden rise to internet fame, and Frances’ feeling of responsibility over the disappearance of his sister, Carys.

The backdrop to this story is the podcast Universe City (a Welcome to Night Vale-esque narrative about somebody who’s trapped on a campus that’s full of monsters, and trying to escape), and the community that builds up around it. Frances’ love for the podcast is evident almost from the very beginning of the book, and I feel like it provides a really nice insight into an aspect of fan culture that I haven’t seen explored in YA lit before… That said, this book is not about Universe City, it’s about Frances and Aled, and Universe City is, more than anything else, the medium through which we are able to best know Aled.

Speaking of the characters, both Frances and Aled were fantastically written, with very relatable struggles, and I loved the way that it was only in finding each other that they were able to truly find their own selves, and their own voices; each of them only needing somebody who had no specific expectations of them in order to come out of their shells – and those shells were pretty thick… Frances had put so much effort into making herself into “Cambridge material” that realising that the other parts of her might be just as important became incredibly difficult, while Aled was trapped under layers and layers of hurt that he didn’t know how to (or, it seems, believe that he deserved to) escape from. That’s not all there was to the characters, of course, but part of the joy of reading Radio Silence, for me, was getting to know them both for myself, so I won’t say anything more about them except this: They’re both wonderful characters individually, and are made even more so by their love for each other.

And I don’t mean romantic love, by the way; that was another great thing about this book. I don’t think I would’ve minded if Oseman had decided to go the romance-route, because I loved their relationship so much, but I can’t over-emphasise how wonderful it felt to be reading a book (particularly a book for teenagers) that gave such precedence to friendship, with no expectation of (or desire for) it ever becoming anything else. And I say “else”, rather than “more”, because I feel that Oseman does a really great job of showing that friendship can be just as important a driving force in a person’s life as romance. Platonic soulmates is a term that springs to mind when I think about these two, though I’m not sure if the term was used in the book itself, or if I’m just projecting… There is a very well-executed romantic sub-plot, between Aled and another character, but it’s so far from being the focus of the story that I almost forgot to mention it.

Apart from friendship, major themes in this book included communication and its failure, of which there were ample examples on Aled’s part (whether its his attempts to reach out through Universe City which go unheard, or the inability to talk to Daniel about his feelings that’s making their relationship fall apart), and the feeling of being trapped by the expectations of others, which is demonstrated by Frances and Aled both – though in Frances’ case, the expectations that trouble her are ones that she’s actively cultivated, while Aled’s constraints are blatantly unfair. Both these themes do a lot to further flesh out characters who are already well developed and incredibly sympathetic.

You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Carys yet, and that’s deliberate. A lot of work seems to have gone into building up her disappearance as a huge mystery, and its even implied (on the back of the book as well as in the narrative) that Frances may have somehow been involved in it – or at least knows some dark, crucial secret – but the eventual revelation is quite underwhelming, as is the solution to the (smaller) “February Friday” puzzle that’s presented in Universe City. I wouldn’t say that this is a problem with the book, exactly, as the resolution of Carys’ storyline ties in quite nicely with the rest of the book’s themes, but I do think that putting so much emphasis on it was something of a marketing misstep… There are little mysteries here and there that are interesting to see unfold, but the huge, We Were Liars-style twist that I was half expecting doesn’t exist.

I did have one problem with the book, however, and that was the extreme overuse of the word “literally”, both in Frances’ narration and the dialogue. I haven’t read Oseman’s previous book, so I’m not sure if this is just her writing style, or if it’s an attempt to accurately portray modern language (I’m aware that “literally” is a word that is often overused in real life, too), but if the former, it really should have been picked up by an editor, and if the latter, I can’t imagine why she’d choose to replicate a speech pattern that’s so irritating… Obviously, it wasn’t enough to stop me from loving this book, but extreme pedants might want to be aware of it before reading.

I only originally gave Radio Silence four stars, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and then it ended up being one of my top books of 2017! It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, and one of the most relatable books I’ve ever come across, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone who’s even vaguely intrigued by anything I’ve said about it… I feel like I was barely able to scratch the surface with this review, even though it’s already gone on for far too long, so here are some random, leftover thoughts that I couldn’t find a place for in the main review:

  • The cast is incredibly diverse, in terms of both race and sexuality. This is also one of only two books I’ve ever read that discusses asexuality, and it does it extremely well.
  • I loved Aled so much. Frances was great, too, but Aled needs all the hugs in the world.
  • The intensity of their friendship makes me miss my own best friend even more than I already did. (She lives a long way away.)
  • I wish that every YA parent was as amazing and supportive as Frances’ mum.
  • Universe City should be a real thing, even if it’s in book form rather than a podcast. It sounds really interesting. (We got Carry On, so it’s possible, right?)
  • I may add this to my favourites list…

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