It's been said that every British novel ever written is really about hierarchy and class warfare, as they exist in England. Dracula, after all, was, well … a Count.
Matt Haig's The Radleys is indeed British, and does have a bit of this element, though it is more about assimilation and middle-class living, and could even be taken as a commentary on racism or homosexuality, as the titular protagonists are trying "to pass" - as humans, that is, given that they, like Dracula, are vampires.
Not for Haig, though, the blood-and-bondage whipped cream of much vampire drama as currently presented, or the broody Gothic undertones of the past, and not, thank goodness, the teenage, Dawson's Creek, one-kiss-takes-a-decade nonsense that seems to be well-nigh inescapable.
The Radleys, though vampiric in nature, are strictly suburbanites. Peter Radley is the town doctor. His wife, Helen, belongs to the local book club and hosts dinner parties. They have neighbours and a mortgage. The kids go to high school, though they are picked on for being weird. Haig has added some nice touches as to how the vampires manage their condition: They wear a lot of sunscreen, they avoid Italian food due to a garlic "allergy" and, most important, they are "abstainers." In other words, they don't drink human blood. They do eat a great deal of rare red meat, though.
Of course, the status quo is irreparably altered when teenager Clara Radley decides to become a vegan, setting off a chain of events with not entirely unexpected consequences. Though her parents try to dissuade her (in a very funny riff on the usual parental angst about the choices teenagers make), Clara persists, resulting in a horrifying scenario in which she kills and eats one of her classmates. Lest this deter the faint of heart, rest assured: He probably deserved it.
And thus the Radley parents' carefully orchestrated lives start to unravel. They are forced to tell Clara and her brother, Rowan, that they are, in fact, vampires, though abstaining ones. (Quotations from The Abstainer's Handbook abound amusingly in each chapter.) The elder Radleys' dismay at Clara becoming vegan is then understandable - they knew it could make her dangerously unstable, and thus "out" them all. Helen panics and Peter is forced to dispose of the remains of Clara's murder/meal. He also does the unthinkable; he calls his brother, Will, for help, not knowing that Will is the last person Helen wants to see. Not only is he a fully practising, blood-drinking, smooth-talking vampire, he and Helen share an explosive secret. But Peter is happy to see his brother again, and the children are drawn to their uncle, who seems to have the key to making their lives easier and, better yet, making them popular at school.
Unfortunately, Uncle Will can't solve all their problems; in fact, he makes some things worse with his intolerance of humans. In the meantime, the secret "unnamed predator" police unit begins to close in on all the Radleys, while a disgruntled ex-cop with a very personal grudge is about to take things into his own hands, and another high-school bully circles the Radley kids.
These disparate narrative threads are slowly woven together by Matt Haig into some kind of high-tension, demented neo-Gothic doily, but everything does wrap up nicely in the end, with lovers united and the wicked punished. Mostly.
Although the ending is perhaps a little too pat, what is so compelling about The Radleys is its very English sensibility - that insouciance and comic weirdness that you don't really get anywhere else. While it is occasionally gruesome, it's quite simply a very funny book - social satire masquerading as flippant black humour. It's rare that you can call a novel charming that involves murder and blood-drinking, but that's exactly what Matt Haig has provided us: a smart little fable and commentary on suburban living and family dysfunction, told with a sly wink and a great deal of wit and humour that, mercifully, refreshes the often tired vampire genre.
Sandra Kasturi is a Toronto writer, editor, poet and publisher, and the author of The Animal Bridegroom.