Review: The Radio by M. Jonathan Lee

A comedy so black that you’d have to eat a lot of carrots to know whether George’s adventures are actually visible.
The Radio is a black comedy which centres around the decline of the lovable, yet hapless, George Poppleton, a middle-aged, henpecked father and husband who stumbles across an old transistor radio in his loft. Much to the fury of his demanding wife and daughter, his obsession with listening to the radio drives him on an unexpected journey, fueled by the painful memories of the suicide of his only son many years before…
This is a story of what it means to be a family, the perception of loving and being loved, and what it means to be sane.

A little while ago, we were asked by M. Jonathan Lee if we would be interested in reading and reviewing his novel, The Radio. We don’t often ‘take requests’ directly in that way, but I was intrigued by the premise and Lee was kind enough to send a copy for us to read.

The Radio is Lee’s debut novel and it shows many positives. While I didn’t laugh out loud at George’s trials and tribulations – the comedy is certainly bittersweet – he is definitely a lovable character. I also really loved the premise; it’s a subtle but perceptive glimpse into the difficulties that British people have dealing with mental illness, particularly in young people, and George’s quest for redemption is revealed tenderly, with great empathy, and without sugar-coating the tragic aspect of the loss of a child.

This being said, it does show that this is a debut. I felt that, in places, Lee’s prose needed to be a little more pruned and pared down to achieve a more striking effect – sometimes, less is more. There’s also a multitudinous cast of characters, and Lee frequently switches between different points of view within the same chapter. I found this a little jolting initially, as there’s a huge contrast between George and his family, especially his wife Sheila, the self-obsessed shopping channel enthusiast. I’d just get back into George’s slightly plodding but generous, sweet tone, but Sheila’s brusque voice would break back in again. This wasn’t a deal-breaker though; variety is the spice of life and, after the first fifty pages, I felt I’d ‘got the hang’ of the different narrative voices and was able to appreciate the differences between the family members, friends and acquaintances. It’s not often that a writer is able to juggle some many individual tones, and by the end of the book, I felt I’d met and grown to know a real range of different, recognisable people with their own motivations, concerns and joys.

This brings me to the aspect I felt less happy with – the portrayal of the female characters, especially Sheila and daughter Sam. The Radio is definitely intended to be funny, and, as such, Sheila and Sam are comic characters, but I felt that Lee’s portrayal in their case went a little too far at times, creating a lack of humanity. Sheila at one point abandons her elderly father to fall over on the carpet, to be picked up by George, because she’s desperate to buy a limited edition face cream before the supply runs out. As the story continues, we do see why George and Sheila’s relationship has become so hard, and why Sheila has become so apparently callous, but I felt her ‘real’ voice was missing in comparison to his. Again, I found myself being shaken back out of the story as I wondered if there wasn’t more to Sheila than this, and whether she was getting a raw deal. I would have liked to have seen more depth in the relationship between George and his wife; we see he clearly loves her but at times I found it hard to understand why.

My final comment would be that, perhaps, The Radio has suffered by comparison to the two books by Rachel Joyce which I’ve read, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Perfect. These are both books which deal with similar themes – depression, mental illness, family relationships – which have set the bar of my expectations extremely high. Joyce manages to write from both a male and a female perspective equally sympathetically, and expertly balances comedy and tragedy. Given the similarities to Harold Fry especially, I think I may have been more critical of The Radio than I would have been otherwise.

I do hope M. Jonathan Lee continues to write, as I’m sure there’s more there to be discovered in the future.


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