I have a confession: I was just about done with vampires. Unlike some of my friends, who seem to have an endless thirst for the latest vampire/werewolf/demon/angel/zombie combo on page or screen, I was starting to think I had lost my appetite for this popular genre entirely. It had begun to seem tired, wan, pale, a little…bloodless. That is, until I picked up Matt Haig's THE RADLEYS.
"...a suspenseful and at times horrifying vampire novel, complete with gruesome killings and a brutal climactic scene."
It's no secret that I've loved Haig's fiction for years; from his Labrador Retriever-narrated THE LAST FAMILY IN ENGLAND to his brilliant reimagining of Hamlet in THE DEAD FATHERS CLUB to his delightfully dark novels for children, Haig inevitably manages to blend creative, unexpected storytelling with surprising commentary and insights. THE RADLEYS is no exception.
The Radleys are a typical middle-class English family. They live in a nice but not ostentatious home in the village of Bishopthorpe. Peter is a family physician, his day filled with complaints major and minor from an endless parade of hypochondriacs and the genuinely ill. His wife Helen keeps busy planning dinner parties for the neighbors and attending book clubs. The couple does everything they can to lead a quiet, ordinary life, to stay under the brutal radar of village gossip. The only trouble is that their children, Clara and Rowan, find it impossible to dodge the daily deluge of taunts and torture they receive at school.
You see, the Radley kids are a bit…different. They have to slather on SPF 50 sunblock before heading out even for a short while. They're both tired constantly and subject to a litany of physical and emotional complaints. Clara finds herself getting violently sick when she experiments with veganism. Rowan is bullied mercilessly and is convinced that Eve, the girl he loves from afar, will never return his affection. Rowan and Clara are beginning to feel that they're doomed to a life of neglect or ridicule. That is, until Clara, cornered in a farm field by an overly aggressive boy, suddenly --- and in dramatic fashion --- discovers her true nature.
The crisis that ensues sheds light on all the family’s problems and calls into question the elder Radleys' decision to live as abstainers. Complicating everything is Peter's brother Will, a powerful and charismatic vampire who shows up in Bishopthorpe ostensibly to help. His arrival, however, brings to the surface new secrets and complications, ones that might extend into the wider community. It'll be hard for the Radleys to escape village gossip now, that's for sure.
THE RADLEYS is a fascinating book that can be read on several levels. On one hand, it's a suspenseful and at times horrifying vampire novel, complete with gruesome killings and a brutal climactic scene. It's also very funny, chock-full not only of absurd situations but also of genuinely funny one-liners, both about vampirism (who knew that both Lord Byron and Jimi Hendrix were vampires?) and middle-class life. For of course, on another level, THE RADLEYS is not really about vampires at all, but about repression in all its various forms: "Look, for God's sake. Look at everyone," Clara tells her brother. "Everyone represses everything. Do you think any of these ‘normal’ human beings really do exactly what they want to do all the time? 'Course not. It's just the same. We're middle-class and we're British. Repression is in our veins."
Whether it's about the war between id and superego, about family dynamics, or about the fraught processes of growing up, one thing is for sure. THE RADLEYS is a different sort of vampire novel, one that should sate both bloodthirsty fans of the vampire genre and readers who like to sink their teeth into a little social satire.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 14, 2011