Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bite Here, Hold the Garlic: Matt Haig’s The Radleys

Matt Haig’s The Radleys – a British vampire novel pulsing with lots of blood and deadpan humor, but not too much gore – was just the right, light book to take me out of my reading slump. This story of a British vampire couple who live in an upscale neighborhood, abstain from blood, and hide their vampire identity from their own teenage children, is a fun blend of social commentary, comic relief, and horror.

Haig’s novel revolves around four main characters: father Peter is a doctor (ooh, those blood samples!), mother Helen seems to enjoy her book club, daughter Clara is a newbie vegan, and son Rowan is an outcast at school. Peter and Helen’s flashy London past included some high-flying bloodsucking, much of which ended badly for the suckees. Now, however, they are successful small-town homeowners who’s kicked their bloody habits: they keep a copy of The Abstainer’s Handbook in the house but have tossed out their books written by vampires. Haig includes several lists of musicians, writers, and actors that his characters say were vampires; a bit of this is funny – I can accept Jimi Hendrix and Lord Byron as vampires but Van Morrison?! – though some of it feels a bit forced.

Despite ample family dysfunction, everything’s okay at the Radleys’ until Clara goes to a party and has an encounter with a drunk and disorderly boy. Then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose within the family and the community. Worst of all, Peter’s brother, Will, comes to visit. The kids didn’t know Will existed, and Will and Hellen (Freudian slip there, I guess) have some unfinished business. Will is an active bloodsucker with something of a reputation in Manchester. He’s part of a parallel world in which vampires are allowed to be vampires as long as they behave.

What’s most fun about The Radleys is that, at its core, it’s a horror story about what happens when people conform too tightly to societal standards. In the chapter called “Repression Is in Our Veins,” Rowan tells Clara that they are middle-class Brits, thus naturals at repressing themselves. Clara’s not sure she’s good at that.

Haig’s solution to the impasse between bloodless conformity and bloodsucking individualism is to write an ending that’s happy for nearly everyone. Moderation, it seems, is a virtue for all of us, fangéd or unfangéd. My assessment of The Radleys is also happily moderate: a bit slow at the start but fun, light reading that’s not mindless. I like that. The Radleys has been marketed in the U.K. for both YA and adult readers; I think it would make for great family reading and discussion.

Update: The Radleys won an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Alex Awards recognize "adult books that appeal to teen audiences." (press release with list)

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Radleys from Simon & Schuster/Free Press at Book Expo America. Thank you! (The U.S. release date is listed on Amazon as December 28, 2010.)

Up Next: The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt, Wilhelm Genazino’s short existential novel about a man who, yes, tests shoes.

Garlic photo credit: davidlat, via

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