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Review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

radleys matt haig text Review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

Blurb: 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.

Over the years, Peter and Helen Radley have invested so heavily in the bank of middle-class conformity that the recent financial crisis ought likely had them quaking in their boots. For many years, Peter has maintained the dully admirable position of the town GP, while Helen spends her days forcing her way through dirge-like book club tomes and painting numbingly bland watercolours. Even their children impressively fit the suburban family mould, with their meagre efforts at rebellion manifesting as vehement vegetarianism and mawkish infatuations with the works of Byron. But while this conformity-investment should be reaping them all manner of interest in the form of social capital, the only type of interest it's resulting in is that of the neighbours.

The Radleys live in the sort of small town where everyone is an acquaintance, but not necessarily a friend, and where gossip and tension are essential social lubricants. And unfortunately the Radleys, for all their efforts to affect a perfectly boring middle-class existence, have long been whisperingly perceived as, well, a little'odd.

Why, wonder the neighbours, does Peter Radley refuse to join that essential emblem of masculinity, the local cricket club? Why does Helen Radley delight in cooking such bloodily carnivorous meals, but consistently neglect to include such indispensible ingredients as garlic? Why, despite her stringently vegan ways and her clearly fragile state, do animals react so poorly to young Clara? And while the benefits of sunscreen are certainly indisputable, is it really necessary that young Rowan slather it on so indulgently in dreary old England? And the strange waking hours he keeps, goodness

What novelist Matt Haig has created here is something akin to'Desperate Housewives meets'Angel. The Radleys are, as you have no doubt been tipped off by my immensely subtle introduction, a family of vampires who have taken the moral high-road and live as abstainers, avoiding taking sustenance from human blood. Living as they do comes in no way naturally to them, as evidenced by Peter's slightly-too-overjoyed reaction at receiving blood tests from his patients, or Helen's urges to paint something a little more controversial than wan watercolours of apple trees, but as Helen keeps reminding her husband, their efforts are worth it if it means that they, and their children, are able to live a decent life. (Even if it means giving up trashy vampire romance novels and music records, laments Peter.)

It is this perspective, rather than the vampire'angle itself, that makes'The Radleys such an interesting read: these notions of fitting in, of doing what's right, of protecting others. Wanting their children to lead a normal, safe life, Peter and Helen Radley have carefully avoided discussing their condition with their children. However, pointed evasion doesn't necessarily have the outcome intended, as many parents have no doubt found out after failing to participate in a touchy conversation or two about the birds and the bees. While Peter and Helen have thus far not had to engage in their own familial chitchat about the bats and the Vs, Clara and Rowan are aware, in that way that teenagers are, that something about them is different, perhaps even'wrong.

These differences are rather dramatically underscored when Clara responds to the advances of a loutish classmate in exactly the way that Peter and Helen would prefer that she would not. Clara's reaction, although certainly passionate, is not the type that results in swollen bellies and belated chats about safe sex. Rather, it results in a rather ghoulishly torn up corpse'something that does not gel well with the Radleys' carefully crafted turgidity. Haig works with this, however, in a fascinating way. Rather than Clara regretting her actions, and suffering the consequences of indulging her passions, she is deeply empowered by them instead. She is bolstered both physically and mentally, and sees little transgression in what she has done. Interestingly, it is not Clara who attempts to atone for her actions, but rather her parents, who work together to ditch the dead body and conceal any evidence of wrongdoing. Clara, when interviewed by the police, is sloppy and apathetic, while her parents continue to try to protect her, fearful of what may become of her, and of them.

The theme of protection and keeping up appearances is rife throughout the rest of the book, and we watch as the various characters contort themselves to fulfil the roles they feel are expected of them. While the Radleys themselves are the very epitome of societal repression, a number of other characters struggle with the same issues. The woman in Helens bookclub, for example, who is drawn, wistful, lostperhaps, thinks Helen, one of them? There is young Eve, juggling all manner of carefully constructed facades, and even Lorna, who plays the suburban housewife so well (complete with Thai chicken salads and tragic flirting) that one feels a tug of lament towards her.

Dont get me wrong.'The Radleys is, first and foremost, a gloriously fun novel about a family of vampires, and Haig has a lot of fun playing with and subverting the canonical vampire myth. However, Haig is an incisive writer with impressive social nous, and he makes the most of this in'The Radleys, which all up is also'a smart little book that works on a number of levels. The novel'touches not only on issues of conformity and repression, but also illustrates the utter meaninglessness of abnegating ones true, passionate self purely to bow to certain norms. Perhaps the odd neck-munch really is good for everyone.

(One final note: The Radleys is being marketed as a YA/crossover novel, which is a label Im not entirely sure I agree with. While it will certainly appeal to teen readers, the book isnt a YA at heart. The story being told is largely that of Helen and Peter, of the lull of middle age, of how one came to be in a certain place in life, and what one can, or should, do about it.)

200px 4 stars.svg  Review: The Radleys by Matt Haig

With thanks to Text Publishing for the review copy.

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