Written by: Matt Haig
Published by: Canongate Books
Synopsis: Meet the Radleys. Peter, Helen and their teenage children, Clara and Rowan, live in a typical suburban English town. They are an everyday family, averagely dysfunctional, averagely content. But, as their children have yet to find out, the Radleys have a devastating secret. In this moving, thrilling and extraordinary portrait of one unusual family, The Radleys asks what we grow into when we grow up, and explores what we gain – and lose – when we deny our appetites.
It was a delightful bit of serendipity that led to me reading The Radleys – firstly, I’d heard the author Matt Haig on a podcast for Iain Lee’s radio show on Talk Radio promoting his more recent works – A Boy Called Christmas and Reasons to Stay Alive, so his name was on my radar. Months later, I’d received a three-month subscription to Kindle Unlimited, and chanced upon his 2010 novel The Radleys on the ‘free to rent’ section. The quirky cover artwork and the previous recommendation from Iain Lee prompted me to give the book a download without much research, and it was those chance events that led to me discovering a terrific author, whose writing style manages to be gripping, thoughtful and mesmerising all at the same time.
On the surface, the Radleys seem like an ordinary suburban family – each with their own dysfunctional problems – the chronically shy teenage boy, the wallflower daughter, the mother yearning for her pre-marriage life and the husband with the wandering eye. On its own, the book would be a compelling family drama, but Matt Haig adds an extra wrinkle to the narrative – The Radleys are also a family of abstaining vampires, attempting to live amongst the human populace. It is this blend of the supernatural and the mundane that underpins the entirely of the novel, and Haig strikes a pitch-perfect balance, focusing on the emotional impact of a vampire ignoring its instinctive blood lust as well as the inevitable drama and problems of two point four children family.
Told in a series of short, impactful chapters – each of which named with intriguing and sometimes evocative titles – Matt Haig explores all four members of the Radley family, giving each of the leads a compelling storyline that helps drive the core plot. It’s actually impressive to step outside of the narrative and witness the intricate cogs of the storyline working alongside one another to create a tale like clockwork. Haig gently foreshadows his plot twists before he reveals them to the reader, allowing the more astute reader a sense of satisfaction at anticipating a reveal – i’ll be honest, I saw most of them coming down the pike, but there was an eleventh hour reveal that did blindside me and incited some of the more dramatic elements of the novel.
Haig references popular vampire fiction in his prose, adopting some of the most iconic aspects of vampiric lore into his own creations, but still creates his own sandbox and rules to play with. Tonally, the novel feels like The Lost Boys, and perhaps Fright Night, but swapping the American suburbia for a sleepy English village instead. While not quite as cinematic as those films, I could imagine The Radleys adapted as a television series – either on Netflix or ITV – emphasising the family drama aspect over the gore and horror. Despite its subject matter, the novel isn’t particularly scary although Haig does create some moments of tension – particularly towards the end when all of the sub-plots begin to coagulate like a pool of blood on the floor.
Haig’s interpretation of vampires is surprisingly modern, and he establishes them as a fringe community that self-govern to ensure that their existence is kept hidden to the general population. I also like the way he describes the act of being converted into a vampire and how the act of drinking blood has sexual overtones to it – taking notions from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and developing them further. Haig uses the two teenagers in the story as proxies for the audience – discovering their true heritage and what it means to be a vampire – and he also uses vampirism as a metaphor for puberty. I also like how he contrasts between abstaining and practising vampires – using marriage and the single life as parallel concepts. The novel is rich with subtext about obsession, addiction, teenage hormones and marriage, that it feels so much more than a “vampire novel” – the characters feel so real, despite their supernatural origins and Haig makes it easy to identify with these impossible beings.
Overall, The Radleys is a deliciously wicked take on the boredom of suburbia, mid-life crises, pubescence and vampires. These seemingly disparate ingredients are jumbled altogether and shaken hard enough to produce a cocktail that will please even the most hardened of taste-buds. Matt Haig’s words feel just as supernatural as his characters, blood-minding his readers into devouring his novel as quickly as possible. His authorial voice is extremely engaging and charming, and while some of his foreshadowing might be easy to see coming – it is impossible to deny just how well-written this novel is. Demonstrating a keen understanding of the human condition – on all of his protagonists (and antagonists) – Haig is able to make the inhuman suddenly seem very human, and considering the vampire genre is filled with cliches, it is extremely refreshing to get a novel that offers a completely different viewpoint. If, like me, you need a bit of serendipity to point you in the way of a new book, trust me – you cannot go wrong with picking up The Radleys.