Free Radicals | Lila Riesen


Free Radicals by Lila Riesen

Out now from Nancy Paulsen Books; 400 pages

Content Warning: Bullying, death, discrimination, racism, xenophobia, sexism, sexual assault

About the Author: “Daughter of Afghan and Australian immigrants, Lila was raised in the USA. Her undergraduate studies were completed at Indiana University and the Australian National University in English. In 2017, Lila graduated with a Master’s degree in English literature and linguistics from the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Free Radicals is her first novel, inspired by her cashew-coveting Baba and all the Afghans fighting for peace, in the US and abroad” (Bio from Penguin Random House website). 

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“‘We can’t lose hope,’ says Mom, with a look at Baba. ‘But you also can’t spend every moment of your day worrying, Mama. We have to live in the present.’”

Mafi Shahin is sixteen and has multiple secrets. She is her high school’s secret vigilante, the Ghost, whose mission is to get justice for her classmates who have been wronged. Her family is Afghan, but her dad doesn’t want anyone to know they’re Afghan because of the prejudice they might face. On top of that, some of her family is trying to escape from Afghanistan. She has a crush on the star basketball player, who happens to be one of her brother’s teammates. She has to juggle everything while she feels like she has no one to turn to. 

Lila Riesen’s debut novel highlights Afghan representation in addition to plenty of family and school drama. It was interesting to see that the Islamophobia that Mafi’s dad possesses is for their safety, and he passes it along to his children. I also appreciated the inclusion of a transgender character, which I rarely see in YA books. I was intrigued when I first heard about this book and read the synopsis; however, Riesen did not cover many of the points in the summary well. Mafi’s alter ego, the Ghost, was only mentioned in passing, which I was sad about. She is also very boy-crazy and because of that lost herself, her family, and her friends along the way. The first few pages are unexpectedly mature, and I don’t think they are fit for a YA audience. There are mentions of sex, pornography, alcohol, and a rumor going around the school about Mafi performing explicit acts at a party. While most of these themes are important to touch on, I think Riesen could have approached these topics more delicately. The initial chaos died, and I enjoyed the book more after that. I liked how the relationship between Mafi and her brother, Rafi, developed and how they had each other’s backs. Some plotlines are underdeveloped, but the representation in this book is good.

PRR Writer and Social Media Manager, Kelly Marry