Friday, 22 July 2016

Radio Silence, by Alice Oseman

I loved this book so much. It’s vital and vibrant, heartbreaking and emotional. It’s hard to isolate a main storyline in Radio Silence; it’s more of a web of stories and events that sort of tie together. The novel covers themes of identity, the pressure of living up to expectations, friendship, family, fandom and creativity. It also emphasises that it’s wrong and exhausting to force yourself into a role that you feel society, adults, whoever have guilted you into.

Frances, as a gifted student has been guided towards University, groomed Dumbledore style for the academic echelons of Oxbridge. Throughout the course of the novel, Frances comes to realise that there’s much more out there, more options, more opportunities than her blinkered path has suggested until now. Radio Silence reminds readers that though it is scary to find that your hard-won path is in fact the wrong one, it’s never too late to change, so long as you are brave enough to make your own decisions and trust yourself.

I absolutely loved Frances and, despite our 10 year age gap, I identified with her so hard. She refers to ‘School Frances’ the study machine, the one who everybody assumes will ace her A Levels and go to Cambridge and go off to something complicated and important in adulthood. Clever, boring, quiet Frances who has no connection or anything in common with the people she hangs out with and has a constant inner monologue about not giving away her weirdness. Because ‘Real Frances’ is someone else entirely, a person known only really to her mum. Real Frances dresses like a giant child, creates fan art for her favourite podcast in her spare time and is an absolute social hermit. She essentially wears a mask 24/7 and presents a totally different persona to the word outside her home. Her safe space is Tumblr, where she is a prominent member of the Universe City fandom she posts her art as Touloser.

The “Big night out” scenes could have been stolen straight from my own life. AO captures that feeling perfectly of allowing yourself to be coerced into an activity that everybody else is mad for that you simply Do Not Get, mostly just to fulfil social obligations. That sense of looking around at all the normal, happy teens having fun doing something horrendous like shots and clubbing and genuinely wondering if you might belong to another species altogether. It’s on this night out that she meets Aled Last for the first time (properly). Rather than being the beginning of a lame romance, it’s the start of the first real friendship that Frances has ever had, the first time she can be Real Frances to another person. It also just happens that he is the creator of Universe City and has lived across the street from her the whole time.  A naturally reserved person, Aled is not particularly forthcoming about his home life, save for Frances’ prior knowledge of his runaway sister. It will unfold in the most harrowing way, poor Aled.

A beautiful, heartwarming friendship blossoms between Aled and Real Frances- one based on a mutual love of the others’ work, a shared creative passion, a mutual love of goofy clothes and almost certainly on loneliness too. They work on the podcast together testing new stories, they help each other study and become generally inseparable. Two shy, nerdy creative types have found each other and it’s a gorgeous thing to read, not least because of the total absence of romance. I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to read a YA novel where none of the characters are pining, secretly or overtly, for any of the other characters.

Their friendship is tested in the most modern way when some Facebook and Tumblr detective work outs Aled as the Creator of Universe City and his hordes of demanding, kind of scary fans demand a kind of ownership of his creation, something that they as listeners are so invested in that they feel they have a stake in it. It raises interesting discussions about the role and distance of fans and fandoms in the creation of art, but that’s kind of a whole other thing in itself.

It’s a scary thing to realise that the thing you’ve conditioned yourself in to wanting, that main, glorious life goal- is actually not what you want at all and then having the bravery to admit that. The book asks some important questions about identity, about the projection of different versions of yourself and choices. As teens, you’re offered limited choices- it's really not a good time to be making big life decisions. Sheltered for so long in school, the adults that surround you have mostly gone down the same path; university and then teaching. Obviously schools and teachers want the best for their pupils- but to what extent do they get it wrong in the paths that they steer their young people towards?

There is so much to love about this book. Frances has one of the best narrative voices I’ve encountered in a long time; the reader really becomes close to her. The relationships are all beautifully explored, even amongst the supporting characters. Frances’ relationship with her mum is brilliant, all sarcasm and razor sharp but realistic dialogue. Aled’s relationship with his mother is enigmatically creepy. Everything feels so absolutely realistic and developed. It’s incredible. I've just got to squeze in, one of the many, many reasons to marvel at this book is the incidental mixture of characters. A total mixture of ethnicity, gender and sexuality; but it’s not a story about any of that. Not all novels with a POC protagonist have to be thematically linked to race. Sometimes gay people exist in narratives that are not soley about coming out. I feel like Alice Oseman is really leading the charge on representation and love her slightly more for it.

It is pretty much a flawless book and it is, evidently, very difficult to write thoughts about it in a comprehensible manner. Read it immediately.

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