Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

GoodReads Description: 

What if everything you set yourself up to be was wrong?

Frances has always been a study machine with one goal, elite university. Nothing will stand in her way; not friends, not a guilty secret – not even the person she is on the inside.

But when Frances meets Aled, the shy genius behind her favourite podcast, she discovers a new freedom. He unlocks the door to Real Frances and for the first time she experiences true friendship, unafraid to be herself. Then the podcast goes viral and the fragile trust between them is broken.

Caught between who she was and who she longs to be, Frances’ dreams come crashing down. Suffocating with guilt, she knows that she has to confront her past…
She has to confess why Carys disappeared…

Meanwhile at uni, Aled is alone, fighting even darker secrets.

It’s only by facing up to your fears that you can overcome them. And it’s only by being your true self that you can find happiness.

Frances is going to need every bit of courage she has.

The good news – Alice Oseman’s second novel is just as good as her first. It captures the next stage of life – the move from school to university - while exploring some really important issues around school success and how teenagers are taught to define their self-worth. Again she involves the Tumblr generation in a realistic (but not cringe-y) way. She also draws in fandoms, the perks and flaws of social media, male-female friendship, ethnicity, sexuality and so much more and they all weave together in a very engaging way that today’s generation will definitely appreciate. 

Radio Silence is a must-read for those in their final years at school.

If I didn’t get into Cambridge, everything I had tried to be throughout my school life would be a total waste.’ – Frances, Radio Silence

The historical associations of Oxbridge – as the only destination for the best and brightest – the prestige, the privilege – the confirmation of genius, the mythical guarantee of success, it is still lorded over today’s children. It is still the pillar against which schools measure and brandish their greatness and often a factor in parents of a certain background selecting the institution they wish their children to go to. But Oxbridge isn’t, or shouldn’t be relevant anymore. The Oxbridge ideal is out of date and it’s actively harmful to the way kids think and what they strive for. Many are measuring their self-worth on archaic and narrow ideals. I really relate to Frances’ plight in this regard. I think Alice is brilliant at really getting into the very real struggle and sorrow that Frances goes through – she acknowledges that you could argue it is coming from a position of privilege in the first-world – that it seems selfish and ungrateful but that doesn’t mean it isn’t any less real and important and doesn’t hurt. Frances’ quest for Cambridge and that whole part of her experience gave me so many flashbacks and it honestly reads so truly – I think so many people who haven’t felt understood or represented before will feel a wave of relief when reading this book. Some teenagers work really hard, get on with their parent(s), aren’t just interested in parties, drinking and romance and still have an absolutely engaging and complex story to tell.

Your whole life for about 16 years, is school, university is the focus and end-goal imposed on you, and you so desperately want to be special and worth something but you have such narrow parameters within which to define that success. Radio Silence really got me thinking again about those years at school, approaching university, and I really hope that it starts a conversation in terms of the curriculum, degrees and maybe just understanding generally what a lot of people are going through and how we can help them. 

I remember a lot of people telling me that university was the best time of their life, and maybe that’s true for some but for others it is a melting pot of anxiety and academic frustration and homesickness and confusion. You could come from school where all your essays got top grades and suddenly find yourself floundering in a place with very little guidance on offer and which still only really rewards people who think in a certain way (usually the way of the person marking the work, if you’re doing the Humanities). I was also told at school that I'd really enjoy university (I studied English Literature) as there was so much freedom and I could write about whatever I wanted however I wanted. That wasn't true. In some ways I found it much more restrictive - they still wanted me to think a certain way and write in a very formulaic way and it quashed my inspiration and enjoyment and my desire to really think for myself. I still love English Literature, and I did learn new ways of thinking and was introduced to some great literature and had a couple of great professors but I also was so relieved to escape it afterwards and be master of my own learning and writing again - to try and recapture some inspiration and sense of identity. Some people find themselves, many also lose themselves – and it’s really interesting and desperately sad to see that happen to Aled in Radio Silence

I really appreciated the focus on friendship, academic life and family. So many of these books, particularly in this age-group, get wrapped up in romance and love-interests and it’s so refreshing not to have that – because, personally, that wasn’t my focus at that age, and it doesn’t seem like it’s Frances’ either – work and finding friends you can be yourself with both feel far bigger and more intense. The platonic relationships in Radio Silence are so, so powerful and moving and heart-warming that you don’t need any contrived romance plot.

The cast of the book is brilliant and diverse – but not in a box-checking way, it's all written with so much care and attention to detail that you feel connected to every character and you appreciate all the things that make them unique. Alice writes so well about these things partly because she is a clever, talented writer, and also because she is true to herself and her experience and is living the world she is writing and reflecting on experiences that are far more recent than an older adult thinking back and trying to make their experience apply to today’s youth. She’s unflinchingly honest, articulate and observant and it’s very much needed in this contemporary market. I couldn’t put it down – I read late into the night and on the train and am still thinking about it.

The podcast narrative is beautiful and tragic and unique, as was the look at the way people interact with their ‘obsessions’ on Tumblr – it can be a frighteningly intense, even dangerous, place but Oseman also shows the creativity and sense of community it can foster. You can start to understand the way people think and interact in these new ways as the world evolves and all the repercussions of those interactions. 

This book is a message – don’t get trapped, question everything – question what you want and what society/school is telling you and whether it’s right for you and be yourself because otherwise there is a lot of suffering that you could fall into. Don’t let your school try to define you by the universities you apply to or the subjects you study, laugh at the ones who try to hand-pick and coach you to get into Oxbridge, just find the things and the people you love and hold on tight.

Radio Silence is one of the books on the market that is most worth reading right now, because you won’t have read anything like it, you won’t have met these characters before – none of them are ‘types’ and you may even finally feel understood and able to process the confusing and messy years of your teenage/young adult life. Even if it’s not your personal experience or something you can relate to, it’s worth reading to spend a few hours in the heads of these very real characters and to see the world through their eyes. Oseman brings so many new, overlooked or marginalised voices into play and has hopefully given them a real platform in YA and it's brilliant community. 

*I received this book as an ARC for honest review on NetGalley. Thank you to HarperCollins Childrens for the chance to read it.