There isn’t exactly a dearth of vampire fiction around at the moment, so it would take something quite distinctive to stand out from the crowd. I think Matt Haig’s new novel manages to do just that. The Radleys may appear to be a normal family living in a sleepy North Yorkshire town; but parents Peter and Helen keep a dark secret from their neighbours, and even from their children – The Radleys are a family of abstaining vampires.
The secrecy can’t last forever, though. When young Clara Radley is attacked by Stuart Harper, a boy from school, she defends herself by biting his hand, which draws blood; that first taste gives Clara a strength that she’s never known, and a desire for more – Harper doesn’t stand a chance. Peter does his best to cover up the killing, and (against Helen’s wishes) calls on his brother Will, a practising vampire with hypnotic powers and a distinct lack of morals. The careful charade of the Radleys’ existence may be about to come to an end.
There are two things which, to my mind, make The Radleys work so well. One is that the book has the conviction to take its central idea seriously. Sure, there are some jokes – about, for example, the hidden perils of modern middle-class life (garlic in the salad dressing!), or vampire pop-culture (songs like ‘Ain’t That a Bite in the Neck’) – but the underlying tone is not whimsical, but quite matter-of-fact. What could have been played entirely for laughs instead has some dramatic heft.
What combines with this seriousness of tone to make the book such a success is that Haig roots his story so firmly in everyday life, and, by doing so, he is able to move beyond it. The problems of the Radleys are the problems of many a family like theirs – teenage children trying to work out their own identities, parents wishing to protect them from life’s dangers but not necessarily being able to, and so on – but given a particular twist because they’re vampires. It is tempting (and possible, to a degree) to read the vampirism as a metaphor –think of it as a murky past, for example, with Will the wayward uncle who might lead the kids astray; for blood, read booze or whatever – but I don’t think anything fits quite perfectly. And I’d say that’s a good thing – the fantastic is more real within the story if can’t easily be reduced to a single metaphor.
It would be reasonable to observe, I think, that The Radleys is not doing anything drastically original. But it is different enough from the norm, and so well crafted, that it’s a great pleasure to read.