Book review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

Wow. Okay, yeah, it’s easy to please me with a vampire story, but The Radleys has been one of the best I’ve read since Let The Right One In, and like that book, I feel a strong need to gush excessively about how very good this story is. It’s an examination of extremes, and it finds both lifestyles lacking while advocating something closer to moderation.

I realize this next comparison may offend some vampire fans, but from the start, I thought of Twilight. If the Cullens are considered vegetarians for consuming only animal blood, then the Radleys are strict vegans who have abstained from all blood drinking. Indeed, their daughter Clara has gone off of meat entirely in a misguided bid to get closer to animals, most of whom are deathly afraid of her. At the start of this story, parents Peter and Helen have yet to inform their teenage children that they’re vampires. This ends about as well as you’d expect when Clara gets a taste of blood and goes into a frenzy. The body she leaves behind is so badly mangled that Peter desperately calls in his brother Will for help with damage control.

There’s another Twilight comparison, but one more indirect in that these vampires are a departure from the typical mythos. For one thing, they aren’t immortal, only living a few centuries with a steady supply of blood. Also, in this world, the Radleys aren’t considered as radical as the Cullens in their approach to life, as they’re following a set of guidelines from a self-help book, The Abstainer’s Handbook (Second Edition) a dreadful tome advising never doing anything. Even using one’s imagination is warned against, lest it lead to actually living. Anyone practicing this lifestyle isn’t living at this point, and with each passage from the guide doled out, I felt awful for any vampire trapped in such a dreadful state. It advises a much shortened existence filled with headaches, skin rashes, and lethargy, and at one point suggests that maybe suicide is preferable to being a vampire. It’s a charming little pill, really.

If the middle-class Radley family represents a failure at one end of the vampire lifestyle extreme, Will is at the polar opposite. He’s the stereotypical vampire leaving a trail of bodies and not caring about the consequences. Normally this trope is something that drives me nuts because I have to ask, “Why doesn’t anyone know vampires exist if there’s modern forensic evidence and security cameras to expose them?” This story actually takes the time to explain why Will has been protected from his actions, and it also shows what act is the last straw, leading to his own people turning him in to the police. And oh yeah, the police and vampires are working together, and that’s why they haven’t been exposed to the public.

But so here’s Will showing up with signs of PTSD from all the people he’s killed, and yet he’s still acting as the cheerleader for fangbanging, one part drug dealer and one part wise hippie. His presence creates a schism in the family, though it feels at first like everyone but Helen is on Will’s side. When the reasons for Helen’s dislike of Will come out, it’s a string of little twists that first cast her in a bad light, only to twist again and reveal how she’d been victimized by Will many years before.

Add to this a former cop whose wife was murdered by Will, a complicated budding romance between this ex-cop’s daughter, Eve, and the other Radley offspring, Rowan, and a detective from the vampire hunting branch of Scotland yard, and you’ve got a bloody good tale, pun intended.

Peter (Who, in another comparison to Carlisle Cullen, is a general practice doctor at the local clinic) is contemplating an affair/murder due to his bloodless marriage. Rowan is wrestling with feelings of self-loathing because he’s a freak just like his bullies had claimed all along. Clara is discovering that one “little” drink has opened her senses and put her at risk of randomly attacking strangers in the street. And Helen…well, Helen is a neurotic ball of lies and half-truths that are just about to implode and destroy her “perfect” life.

If there is any fault to be found in this tale, it’s head hopping. This is not a problem for me, but I know lots of people don’t like it. Well this is head hopping to the extreme. If there are four people in a scene, each one will eventually be given the chance to air their thoughts. It’s never confusing or ambiguous about who is thinking what, but as I said, some people don’t go in for that and it might be a sticking point.

I want to keep gushing, but that would risk giving too much away. (I may have already done that, and I’m sorry. I just love this book so, so much.) So I’ll stop here and give The Radleys 5 stars. It’s a great vampire story with a unique take on the mythos and some satisfying answers to the questions brought up and ignored by more stereotypical stories. I really loved it and will look forward to reading more stories by Matt Haig when I can hunt them down.