There are people who buy books because they are interested in the themes explored or are fans of the writers, and then there are people who are won over by beautiful cover art or an intriguing title. I’m not as spontaneous as the latter, but when I came across the curiously titled Radio Silence, I bought it on a whim. Contemporary young adult fiction is not my forte, but I was looking for a light read and the cover described it as The Catcher in the Rye for the digital age. I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed and will now try to step out of my reading comfort zone more often.
In the book, author Alice Oseman introduces us to a mixed-race teenager named Frances, at the beginning of her last year in high school. Frances is a highly ambitious, self-proclaimed study machine with one goal: making it to an elite university. As the head girl, she is great at public speaking, but the truth of the matter is that she doesn’t really have any friends: “I was nothing. Nothing ever happened to me.”
Like any other troubled teenager, she has a secret she never wants revealed: she religiously follows a YouTube podcast show Universe City and draws fan art — the only activity she does for pleasure. Awkward around her school friends, she finds her true self in the counter-culture of cyberspace.
A young adult novel that takes the path less travelled
Her dull life takes a wild turn when the creator of the podcast asks her to work as the artist of the show. While she is pondering over this offer she goes to a party with her school friends and is asked by her nemesis, the head boy Daniel, to take his best friend Aled — who also happens to be Frances’s neighbour — home because he has had too much to drink. Frances grudgingly agrees, and is shocked to find out that the shy, geeky Aled and the creator of Universe City are one and the same.
That night Frances and Aled develop a deep bond which gives Frances the kind of freedom to be herself that she’s never enjoyed before — with him she can be her true self. This first half of the book reads like a setup for a typical teenage romance. Oseman, however, has something entirely different in store. I was pleased to find that Frances and Aled do not fall in love, as they would have in any other young adult novel.
The transformative journey of Frances and Aled, as they navigate a volatile world without any anchors except their friendship, is the sole focus of Radio Silence. When the podcast goes viral, leading to the exposure of their identities, the deep bond between them is shaken. Conflicted between her real self and who she wants to be, Frances is forced to confront her life, past and present. Having lost Aled she cannot help but question why she lost Carys, Aled’s sister and Frances’s first crush, who one day suddenly disappears from their lives.
While the plot seems overdone and the endless text exchanges between Frances and Aled can be boring at times, Radio Silence is nevertheless an interesting read. The protagonist of the podcast show Universe City goes by the gender-neutral name Radio Silence and is asexual; the sexual orientation of Aled remains ambiguous through most of the book, while Frances, on the other hand, is bisexual.
Radio Silence is a noticeable work of LGBTQ fiction that speaks of the struggle for acceptance and self-identification that, if unresolved, could lead to an identity crisis. Traditional literature assumes that sexuality entails a rather fixed set of values and ideals. Themes of homosexuality have been mainstreamed over the past few decades; even hermaphroditism has been brilliantly explored by writers such as Jeffrey Eugenides. However, asexuality is one theme which has been largely ignored despite the fact that its traces can be found in many revered classics (think Sherlock Holmes, or Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View, among numerous others).
However, what I found even more remarkable is the fact that Oseman refuses to make the sexuality of her characters the singular focus of her narrative. It’s their search for companionship, their struggles within a repressive education system, and their journey to self-discovery that draw you to the book.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 12th, 2017