Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Radleys by Matt Haig

I had this book pushed onto me, and told I HAD to read it, by someone I usually trust implicitly to know what I will like. But Vampires? I haven’t read vampire fiction (modern at least) since I read Anne Rice in my teens and I was therefore really unsure. But I read it anyway, and I’m really glad I did.

The Radleys are vampires. Although unless they told you, you wouldn’t know it. Peter and Helen Radley live in a normal, pleasant suburban street with their two teenage children Rowan and Clara. Rowan and Clara don’t even know themselves that they are vampires, as their parents have never quite found the right moment to tell them. It would not be immediately obvious to them because the family are abstainers, meaning they consider blood drinking to be morally wrong, and although the craving itself never goes away, they attempt to live normal lives. There are issues however. They still have extreme reactions to sunlight, can’t abide even the smell of garlic, and eat copious amounts of rare meat! The children have these oddities explained away to them as sensitive skin and so on, but problems arise when fifteen year old Clara decides to turn vegan! Whilst at a party a drunken boy pushes her a little too far, and in her deprived state, she loses all control, and reverts to her true nature.

This event is the crucial point of the whole novel. In essence, the book revolves around the revelations and events that this discovery has on the whole family. Peter and Helen have to deal with the natural repercussions of this event, as well as the double shock for the children, who realise both that they are vampires, and that they have been lied to their whole lives in one evening. Add into the mix the appearance of Will, Peter’s brother, a fully practicing and out of control vampire, and the whole façade of normality Peter and Helen have constructed for themselves threatens to come crashing down.

There is so much about this book that makes it readable. It mixes an original story, humour and moments of intense darkness together very well. Because as much as this book is about abstaining vampires, not all vampires abstain so there is blood drinking, killing, and persecution. And some pretty sadistic vampires out there. The humour comes from a book within the book, known as the Abstainers Handbook. Chapters from this are interspersed throughout the novel, with ‘helpful’ tips, such as

“if blood is the answer, you are asking the wrong question”

That such a book could even exist is amusing in itself, but the way it is written is so condescending, it is impossible not to smile at some of its ‘advice.’

There is so much more to this book though than a slightly quirky vampire story, although it does do that very well. In fact I felt that the vampirism was just a representation of difference, and how we all try to protect ourselves from being seen as different. Because as much as Helen and Peter attempt to create an outward impression of normality, it never quite succeeds. They manage to hide their vampirism, but their neighbours still think there is something not quite right about them, and comment to themselves about their odd behaviour. Being set in suburban England, it is portraying scenes that are completely understandable for many readers of this book. Many people live in the vicinity of people who don’t draw their curtains, or exhibit other slightly strange behaviour. I thought the book was brilliantly observational on how ordinary people live, and how even slight differences can provoke comment, usually in so called liberal minded people. I liked the fact that I could imagine the places easily, and even some of the people.

In the end though, the book is about accepting who you are, and not trying to build too much of a façade up around yourself, and reconciling your own life and preferences with other peoples. It is about the Radleys progression from almost denying themselves, to learning to accept what they are, but also how to temper that with what is required to live in a civilised society. And it was brilliant. I loved it.


Lesley said...

That actually does sound good! And I had to laugh at the quote about blood being the answer - ha!

I think this is the same author who wrote 'The Dead Father's Club' (haven't read it but it's got something to do with Hamlet).

Dominique said...

I don't think I've read one negative review of this book. It seems like everyone has enjoyed it. I must give it a go. :)

gaskella said...

I loved the Radleys too for all the same reasons. I've read one other of Matt Haig's books and that was also quirky - 'The last family in England' - a tale about a disintegrating family told from the perspective of the family Labrador. It was hilarious yet sad and I'd recommend that one too.

Hannah said...

I worked in a huge branch of Waterstone's for a while, and we used to get manuscripts of books to read while we were on our lunchbreaks.

I read the first few chapters of this, went back to work, and then when I went to retrieve it, IT WAS GONE!

I've been desperately trying to remember what it was called ever since, so my gratitude goes, forever, to you!

Thank you!

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