Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Book Review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

Families. Sometimes they're a bloody nightmare...

Vampires have enjoyed something of a revival in recent years.  Teens have swooned over young adult fare such as Twilight and The Vampire Diaries, while more adult stories have played out in Southern soap True Blood and kitchen sink comedy drama Being Human.  Matt Haig's interpretation of the vampire myth has most in common with Being Human, introducing us to a typically English suburban family who are struggling to suppress their darker instincts.

Peter and Helen Radley are a middle class couple with a wild past that they never discuss.  Their children, Rowan and Clara, are outcasts at school because they are different; they are incredibly sensitive to sunlight, can barely stay awake during the day, and have all kinds of strange cravings and allergies.  Rowan and Clara feel like freaks, clueless as they are to their true heritage.  But that changes one night, when Clara is attacked on her way home from a party.  Self-defense soon becomes dinner.

Terrified that their quiet village life could be turned upside down, Peter contacts his brother Will, also a vampire, to help them clean up the mess.  And it is when this devil of a man steps foot in Bishopthorpe that things really begin to fall apart.

The Radleys succeeds as a novel because the focus is never on the characters as supernatural creatures.  For the first chunk of the book, the two teenagers are unaware they are vampires at all, they are simply angsty teenagers, and the author treats them as such.  Similarly, Peter and Helen are presented to the reader as parents struggling to raise their kids right even as they hurtle towards their own marital and mid-life crises.

Matt Haig's humour permeates the story.  There are plenty of vampire in-jokes, such as the scene where a potential victim jokingly refers to Will as "Dracula", to which he replies, "I prefer Count Orlok."  There's a hint of satire in proceedings too: Helen entertains the idea that she is not the only vampire housewife in Bishopthorpe; surely there must be other women in her book club who have given up a life of bloodlust and depravity in order to conform?  As her son Rowan later points out, not only are they vampires, but they are also British: "repression is in our veins".

There are times when The Radleys doesn't work, although these are few.  The co-existence of a secret vampire subculture and a clandestine agency dedicated to tracking bloodsuckers could have been explored more fully, as could the history of some of the more fascinating side-characters such as vampire Isobel and policewoman Alison.  These small faults, though, are more than made up for by the larger than life, wicked Will Radley, who dominates the page the moment he is introduced.  He'll tear your throat out without a second thought, but for a moment you might just want him to.

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