Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

The Radleys  is a vampire novel that isn't a vampire novel. The family are vampires, to be sure, but vampirism here is a metaphor for identity in general. The novel, then, explores the consequences of denying one's true self; the facade erected by the Radleys alienates the family members from each other, and the family unit from society at large, ironically, as the facade is constructed for the single purpose of fitting in.
The Radley parents, Peter and Helen, are abstaining vampires -- they don't drink blood. Physically, this makes them fragile and under-performing. Emotionally, it strains their marriage, as their whole relationship becomes centered around the sacrifice they make together. Their children, Rowan and Clara, don't even know that they are vampires; they only know that they are sickly, awkward outcasts. After a gruesome incident, though, the parents are forced to tell the children who they really are, and the fallout from discovering their true identities shakes the family's carefully constructed place in the social order. One of the children chooses instantly not to abstain, and the freedom in that decision further strains Peter and Helen's marriage, as Peter observes a happiness and confidence in his child that he and his wife haven't known in years. Throw Peter's brother Will in the mix -- he's a reckless, unabashed blood drinker who is nonetheless depressed over lost love and circling the drain -- the suddenly the Radleys have gone from the unassuming neighbors to the center of the spotlight.
I thought this book was creative and clever. It took a different tack to vampirism that's less sensational and paranormal, and more focused on the real-world consequences of what it means to be different. The writing was refreshingly uncomplicated and concise, and the chapters themselves were short and smoothly flowing. And let me stress again that this is more of a book about family relationships, love, secrets, betrayal, mending, and self-realization than it really is about vampires. There's enough urban fantasy to explore the more, well, fantastical side of vampires -- and lord knows I read it -- but this isn't that book. So if you have vampire fatigue, never fear. The Radleys isn't interested in another star-crossed, tortured YA romance between a hundred-year old vampire and a teenager. It's much more real, and resonant for that.

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