January 25, 2011

BOOKS: The Radleys, Matt Haig (2010)

Is there anything left to say about vampires at this point? Probably not, but Matt Haig gives it a go in The Radleys.

The approach this time is to abandon the overheated passion of the Gothics and the thrillers for the relatively dry and clinical approach of the contemporary suburban family novel. The Radleys live in a bland little British village, where they blend in with their neighbors and seem to be perfectly ordinary suburbanites. Peter and Helen's marriage is no more dysfunctional than average, getting a bit dull, perhaps, but what marriage doesn't after twenty years? The kids, Rowan and Clara, are appropriately sullen and uncommunicative, and neither fits in particularly well at school or has lots of close friends.

But the Radleys are not ordinary suburbanites; they are abstaining vampires, surviving on a diet of "blood resister's animal meat" -- "bram," for short -- and suppressing their occasional blood cravings. Peter and Helen have adapted so successfully to the abstainer's lifestyle, in fact, that they haven't bothered to tell the kids that they are vampires. So when Clara goes vegan and stops getting the animal protein she needs -- well, very bad things happen.

Like most contemporary authors, Haig picks and chooses the pieces of the traditional vampire mythology that he wants to keep. (Sunlight: unpleasant, but tolerable with heavy SPF sunblock; crucifixes: not a problem; garlic: very strong distaste, bordering on allergic reaction.) He adds a few new twists of his own, such as the "unpire," a non-vampire who drinks vampire blood, producing a temporary surge of joy, lust, and reckless abandon.

But in mixing vampire lore with suburban ennui, Haig has diluted each genre enough that both sets of fans will be disappointed. There are a few nice moments along the way. I liked the kids' reactions to their first taste of blood, for instance, and wish that the rest of the book had that intensity. As a whole, though, The Radleys is a tepid effort.

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