The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Last Stop Suburbia (Review: The Radleys by Matt Haig)

The Radleys
Matt Haig
Walker Canongate 2010

Meet the Radleys

Peter, Helen and their teenage children, Clara and Rowan, live in an 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

From one of Britain’s finest young novelists comes a razor-sharp unpicking of adulthood and family life. 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.

Vampires families, eh? We know all about them... they live in houses that feature a lot of glass, wear designer clothes and sparkle prettily in the sunlight, yes? NO! If the Cullens were anything like the Radleys, Carlisle would be going through a mid-life crisis, Esme would be considering an affair and the kids would be wearing bad foundation to cover up their sparkles while wondering why they kept craving a drink of the old red stuff. While the Cullens worry their pretty little heads with thoughts of eternal damnation, the Radleys are more concerned with the day-to-day hell that is suburbia, middle age and adolescence (they actually live in a village, but it is suburbia by any other name...)

We first find Peter, Helen, Clara and Rowan in typical English suburbia. Peter is the local GP, Helen stays home, manages the house and paints watercolours while Clara and Rowan navigate the choppy waters of high school. And school is a bit choppier for them than for most. Rowan can't go out in the sun without wearing factor 60 sunblock and cannot sleep at night while Clara is struggling with her recent conversion to veganism – it just doesn't seem to agree with her and she can't understand why... This is, of course, because they are teenage vampires – they just don't know it yet. Helen and Peter have, perhaps rather naively, decided to be abstainers, denying their base cravings for blood in order to live a perfectly ordered, perfectly dull, middle-class existence. Inevitably, there is an incident involving Clara and a sudden attack of OBT (Overwhelming Blood Thirst). Suddenly their suburban anonymity is at risk and they have no choice but to call in Uncle Will – Peter's brother and all round bad boy vamp.

This is really great storytelling. Books always work best when they work on more than one level and this is successful not only as a tale of vampires but also as a study of suburban Britain – albeit one with its tongue stuck very firmly in its cheek. The Radleys themselves are instantly recognisable. Peter is utterly believable as the classic middle aged man hankering for the golden heyday of his youth. Actually, make that the bloody heyday in his case. Helen is particularly interesting as the kind of brittle, refined woman who is so desperate to maintain the image of a perfect life that she forgets to be happy. She only becomes more interesting as you learn more of her past and the secret that she has been hiding with watercolours, Vivaldi, book clubs and people carriers. Both Rowan and Clara are believable as teens struggling not only against the usual tide of hormones brought about by adolescence but also the entirely unusual urges that they have for anything warm, red and breathing. And then there is Uncle Will! He is really quite, quite awesome. It is so nice to see a vampire who is actually bad these days – no humanitarian doctoring for him. He is bad to the bone, and it suits him.

The story line is also great if somewhat secondary to the people study. Nevertheless it races along to a pretty exciting finish and the writing is knowingly cool and wearily withering. Published by new imprint Walker Canongate, this has been released as a crossover book and really does have something for everyone. While older teens will relate to the plight of animal lover Clara and hapless Rowan, adults will read with a wry smile the trials and tribulations of being a pair of old married vampires in the 'burbs. Deliciously dark, horribly humorous and an interesting addition to the vampire canon, The Radleys is definitely worth a look (to be honest, any book that has a chapter heading of CSI:Transylvania was always going feature on my hit list). It's not what you might expect, in fact it is downright strange in places but as a fable on the trials of growing up and the dangers of forgetting said trials, it is an absolute winner so add it to your wish list and prepare to be blooded...

Thanks to the lovely people at Walker Books UK for sending me a copy of The Radleys to review.


Stephanie said…
I think you're a brilliant and hilarious reviewer -- you have me laughing out loud. ;-) This sounds like a good read. I like reading about vampires who DON'T sparkle in the sunlight.
Ok, after reading your review I've decided that I have to get this book. I simply have to, there's not much more I can add except that I thoroughly enjoy reading your reviews - they make me smile and often splutter with laughter :)
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