‘You probably think Aled Last and I are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and I am a girl. I just wanted to say – we don’t.’
“Hello. I hope somebody is listening.”
The first sentence of ‘Radio Silence’ is from the ‘Universe City’ podcast, and becomes extremely relevant as it’s repeated throughout the story.
Frances Janvier – head girl, straight-A student, Cambridge University hopeful – is obsessed with a podcast.
She listens to ‘Universe City’ constantly: it’s the only thing that helps her drop off to sleep at night, she’s dedicated her spare time to running a fandom art tumblr page, and if you asked her what she was most passionate about it would be the first thing to pop into her head (even if she wouldn’t give it as her answer).
Becoming fast friends, Frances starts making art for ‘Universe City’, growing her fandom blog from a few hundred followers to thousands. Messages flood in demanding she tells everyone who the Creator is, and after her, Aled, and Aled’s best friend and sort-of boyfriend, Daniel get drunk and upload a video of them messing around in a field, the messages change from questions to accusations: her real name is Frances Janvier, and she should just admit it.
Aled panics. If people find out who he is, his mum will force him to end the podcast, and it’s all he’s ever really cared about. Frances attempts damage control and admits that they’re right, but begs everyone to leave the Creator alone and let his identity remain a secret. That doesn’t seem possible in this over-connected internet age, and soon enough Aled’s name is floating around in the ‘Universe City’ tag, along with pictures of him and Frances taken from his personal Facebook.
Aled goes to university and cuts all contact with Frances and Daniel, and within a couple of months he’s ended the podcast. Frances blames herself for the world finding out his secret, and is determined to fix things between them and get the show back on air. Can the girl who hates failure succeed at this seemingly impossible task?
I loved it, for many many reasons.
- Daniel is gay, Aled is demisexual (which I’ve never seen featured in YA before, and is brilliantly explained!), Frances is bisexual and Carys is a lesbian.
- Frances is mixed race, having an Ethiopian father and a white mother, and she wishes she “was closer to her ethnicity in general”, wanting her father’s surname of Mengesha rather than her name of Janvier.
- Daniel’s real name is Dae-Sung, but his mother changed it after he was bullied as a child, saying “How about we give you a real English name, huh?”
- Raine – full name Lorraine Sengupta – is in the middle of an art project for coursework on ‘racism against Hindus in Britain’.
Sometimes it feels as though this wide range of diversity is shoehorned in, a way to make the book appeal to a wider range of readers and get better sales. That’s not the case with this book, which is so natural and realistic.
If you went to school, you’ll have interacted with people of different races and sexualities every day – it’s just what happens when you put that many people in an environment together! – so it’s illogical to only represent one type of person in such a mixed setting.
- The Twitter messages sound like a real feed. The Facebook conversations between Aled and Frances perfectly embody their characters, and there’s such a contrast between them that you’d be able to tell who wrote which messages just based off of the contents.
- You feel connected to the characters, because they come alive on the page. You genuinely believe they’re real people, and you find yourself wanting to listen to ‘Universe City’ and join in with the crazy, dedicated fandom experience.
Alice Oseman is only 21, so she knows how to write like a teenager because she was one herself until very recently!
- “I think everyone’s a bit bored with boy-girl romances anyway,” he said. “I think the world’ had enough of those, to be honest.”
- ‘People move on quicker than I can comprehend. People forget you within days, they take new pictures to put on Facebook and they don’t read your messages.’
- “D’you like him?” […] “No, I don’t think so,” I said. “That’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?”
- “I’m in platonic love with you.” “That was literally the boy-girl version of ‘no homo’, but I appreciate the sentiment.”
- ‘Uni, job, money, happiness. That’s what you do. That’s the formula. Everyone knows that.’
Frances doesn’t have a romance. The story focuses on her relationships with her friends and her attempts to accept who she is and be herself in every situation, rather than compartmentalising Real Frances with School Frances. But that doesn’t stop people from assuming that her and Aled are dating, incorrectly presuming his sexuality and cementing societies unavoidable need to romantically link people.
It deals with the fact that people feel pressured to go to university. I really related to this: I chose not to go to university at the end of sixth form, but because of circumstances in my workplace a lot of my colleagues have been recommending that I reconsider. I nearly put in an application a couple of weeks ago… But I don’t think it’s for me. Getting to read Frances’s uncertainty about university was actually reassuring: it doesn’t have to be something that everyone does!
The one thing I don’t love about this story: I’m worried about is how it’ll work in a couple of years time. It’s so relevant to now, that I’m not sure if it’s going to be a Zeitgeist, stuck forever as one of the best books of 2016 and forgotten by the generations to come. Podcasts are surging in popularity this year, and the Facebook and Twitter conversations between Frances and Aled are very realistic, but with teenage conversations and internet language changing monthly – taking a completely different shape within a year – it might be that it’s much harder to relate to in the future.
I’m glad that I read ‘Radio Silence’ when I did, because if my suspicions are correct it won’t be as effective by this time next year. It’ll be a massive shame, because I want more people to read this book: I’m going to be recommending it at every possible opportunity! I only picked it up because it was the #SundayYA book club pick this month, and I’m really grateful for all of the people who voted for it (even if I did finish it the day after the book club chat – gah!).
I’m hoping it’ll go the other way, growing in popularity throughout 2017 as podcasts get more attention and become the dominant media form, but with attention quickly shifting to the ‘next big thing’ I’m interested to see whether podcasts are just a flash in the pan.
There are other aspects of ‘Radio Silence’ that will appeal long into the future, though: the realistic depictions of different parents – contrasting Frances’s laid-back and supportive mother with Aled’s prescriptive and demanding mother – and the wide range of different, and authentically written, characters.
I haven’t read Alice Oseman’s debut novel, ‘Solitaire’, yet, but if the writing is as amazing as this I know I’m going to fall head over heels for that as well.