I tend to read a lot in the summer – this year, I was up at a cottage with some friends and managed to get through about three books – one of them being Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. YA Contemporaries are typically not my cup of tea, but this novel garnered such positive reviews, I figured I would give it a shot. I didn’t necessarily dislike the book, but I had a few issues with it, which is why I wanted to review it. I feel like one of those grumpy hipsters that has to hate everything that everyone else likes, but I just genuinely feel like I missed something with this novel.
A couple of caveats before I start: for the sake of transparency, I want to mention immediately that I took huge issue with the way that this novel presented the concept of university – I think it coloured the way that I viewed the rest of the story. I’ll discuss this point first, as it’s one of my more personal problems with Radio Silence, but the rest I feel are valid criticisms of the narrative. Also: unprofessional swearing and spoilers ahead, if that bothers you.
Education as oppression
I absolutely hated the way that Oseman presented the idea of university in Radio Silence. She presents university as this oppressive, life-sucking institution that each and every character in her novel detests the thought of. I completely understand the academic pressure of being in high school and feeling that grades, and getting into a good school are all that matters, however, this should have been illustrated with more nuance. While I thought Oseman communicated the pressures of academia, fear of failure, and apprehension about the future really well with her characters (Frances in particular) she dropped the ball when it came to the concept of secondary education – it’s reductive, and inherently negative.
Story time: I took a year off after high school, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. I did get accepted to a school after that year, and I was finally able to pursue the subject I wanted to pursue: English literature. I worked every summer to help my parents pay for my education. Due to personal issues, it actually took me 5 years, instead of the usual 4, to graduate with my degree. I did however, graduate with Distinction and I consider my experience in university to be one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done. I dealt with sleepless nights, late papers, crying breakdowns, and questioning whether it was all worth it – but in the end, it really was. University was the only educational institute that allowed me the creative freedom to write what I wanted to write (resulting in final papers about Harry Potter, Spirited Away, and The Magicians Nephew to name a few) and to actually recognize that critical thinking, and my own thoughts and opinions on the subjects I studied, were valid and valuable. This lead to one of my papers being published in an academic journal. I don’t think this makes me any better or worse than any other person – it was simply the path that I chose, and I’m eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to pursue my degree.
I recognize that university and/or college is not for everyone. You can be successful without a post secondary education. Going to an ivy-league school is not the be-all-end-all defining factor of living a successful life. It’s not fair that students with below-average grades are treated poorly, or given the impression that they are less valuable, or going to be left behind. There are so many different paths and opportunities available that don’t involve a university education. However, painting university as the tangible representative of all these negative aspects was not only unfair, but just obscenely diminishing of any kind of self-discovery and freedom that being at university provides. I wasn’t surprised to find out, after finishing Radio Silence and doing some research on Oseman, that she herself hated her university experience. This is completely valid – I just felt that her personal feelings bled into the opinions of every single character in this novel, giving it a disproportionately negative presentation. After all, characters in this novel rarely express any positive sentiments about post secondary education. I genuinely believe that she meant to communicate something more along the lines of “pursue education for the right reasons” but it definitely didn’t come across that way. The fact that only the negative aspects of academia, and none of the benefits are focused on really rubbed me the wrong way. It’s one of those you-don’t-have-to-drag-one-thing-to-make-another-thing-seem-more-valid moments. As Shakespeare said (probably, at some point) “fucketh out of here.”
The non-existent podcast
A huge plot point in Radio Silence is the “Universe City” podcast that Frances is obsessed with. Obviously the name is a reference to university, so I thought it could have been a really interesting aspect to flesh out; Oseman could have used the setting and characters of this fictional podcast to give the audience some additional insight into the minds and lives of her actual characters – Aled in particular. It’s a common literary device, using nested or embedded narratives, to better explore the inner workings of your world or characters. Unfortunately, Oseman doesn’t delve into Universe City, like, at all. It would have been great to flesh out more of Aled’s inner conflict, as he is naturally a quiet character, and as Frances states multiple times, it’s not always clear what he’s thinking. Instead, we only get the vaguest of descriptions about the setting (the main character is trapped in a university) that is sort of sci-fi in nature, and the occasional passing mention of a characters’ name (like Toulouse) and their role in the show. A clear plot is never developed nor do the individual glimpses of the show – when Aled is recording, or Frances is listening – ever span more than a page or two.
This was such a huge missed opportunity. This book doesn’t have a particularly strong plot to begin with (I found it to be kind of meandering) despite its over 400-page length. I genuinely think that more time could have been devoted to developing an actual plot/narrative for the Universe City podcast, for the reasons I mentioned above, rather than some of the non-important events Oseman chose to focus on instead. We as the audience could have peeked behind the curtain into Aled’s thoughts and feelings (he is a fairly interesting character) in this nested story. It also would have helped a lot with the whole “show-don’t-tell” aspect I think Oseman struggled with a bit. I felt the author was cutting corners by introducing this podcast plot point, and then not developing it at all. Apparently it’s a reference to the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast (I can’t comment, as I’ve never listened) but this was another reason I felt she needed to develop her own setting – to avoid the sense of “wow, Universe City is just discount Night Vale.”
This book received a lot of praise for its diversity, which was great – it was nice to read about a cast of characters that came from different backgrounds, with various sexual orientations that are under-represented in YA. However, it felt like a gimmick to me – like the author did it for the brownie points, or for the sake of avoiding the same criticism as some of her other works, as none of these characters ever engage with any aspect of their culture or ethnicity. Obviously there are a million different ways to represent this (and I’m definitely not the best person to be pointing to them) but the race/religion/sexual orientation of these characters never really comes into play. Frances, a black character (described as half-Ethiopian) never experiences any racism, nor does her culture/background ever have any kind of impact on her life. The other characters are all depicted the exact same way. I guess I’m approaching this English novel from a North American perspective, but I found this super unrealistic – that no aspect of her life was ever depicted through the lens of her ethnicity. This might sound shitty, but it felt like Oseman wrote white characters, and then just slapped on a layer of culture-paint, without taking into account how this might impact the lives/mannerisms/experiences of her characters. It felt reductive, like every character, regardless of their race/religion/sexual orientation, all had the same lived experiences. It was the appearance of diversity, without any actual representation of it. I didn’t buy it. None of the secondary characters in this novel were particularly interesting either – none of Frances’ friends (even Raine, the most prominently featured one) really had any defining personality. Daniel felt underdeveloped as well. Aled was the only character I felt attached to in any sense, which was probably why I felt so apathetic towards the narrative.
Unrealistic plot points
I know, I know, talking about realism in a fictional novel seems counter-intuitive, but as this is a contemporary, it should at least feel fairly realistic. I think my main issues here stemmed from the main antagonist of the novel, Aled’s mother, and the ending. Aled’s mother was easily the worst character in this novel (I mean, literally yes, but also in terms of development) as she is completely awful and sadistic for no reason other than generating feelings of hatred from the reader. It’s lazy and manipulative in my opinion. She’s completely one-dimensional, and just does terrible things for the sake of being terrible – because the plot needs her to be. I mean, when Aled leaves for university, she kills his dog for Christ’s sake (has him put down for no reason, specifically). These obscenely over-the-top acts of injustice just turn her into a caricature, and she would have been a much better ‘villain’ if she’d been presented as more insidiously evil. Or maybe just manipulative/controlling without realizing the pressure she was applying to her kids. Unfortunately she’s presented with zero nuance, and she’s almost laughably bad, like the villain in a children’s movie. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at some of her antics.
The ending of this novel was also a bit ridiculous, in the sense that it was overly unrealistic in its happily-ever-after. Aled’s podcast is now apparently massively popular, and the novel ends with him presenting an episode on stage, at some sort of convention. His seemingly fragile mental state and negative feelings toward university are never addressed again. Frances’ story is left a bit more open-ended, as it’s not completely clear what she wants to do, though it mentions she’s accepted into an art school. This is hilarious, because what are deadlines? Apparently after all her previous applications/interviews she still has time to apply and get accepted into another school. I think the fuck not. I felt that the ending undermined the fairly realistic tone that the rest of the novel held, with its depiction of school struggles, failures, and insecurity that all the kids experience. Everything just wrapped up too neatly, too perfectly, for me to walk away from this book feeling satisfied with the finale.
Side note: I found it utterly hilarious how Frances fails her Cambridge interview. Her literal only ‘hobby’ or defining feature outside of the fandom aspects of Universe City is studying and Cambridge prep. Yet it never occurred to her that an interview question might be “Why do you want to study English Literature?” She can’t even analyze a basic passage or explain why a certain novel sparked her interest in literature in the first place. What the hell was she prepping for exactly? I get that this was supposed to be the revelation moment where she realizes that she doesn’t actually love English Lit that much, but Jesus. She’s supposed to be this really intelligent character, and she comes across as an absolute clown.
Those were my main issues with the novel – though I would still say I enjoyed it (I certainly read it very quickly) I think the negative aspects really pulled me out of the narrative. The flat characters, missed plot opportunities, and unrealistic ending didn’t click with me. I don’t think Alice Oseman is an author I would revisit in the future, honestly. I wasn’t thrilled with her style of writing (though I thought she handled dialogue really well), and this book wasn’t enough to make me look at her earlier work, or return in future. I think Radio Silence is a book that will resonate with a lot of high schoolers in the same position as the characters – in that strange gray area of uncertainty, feeling forced to make decisions that affect your entire future – but it just didn’t quite work for me.