Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Blood on the Mailbox: A Review of The Radleys by Matt Haig

"17 Orchard Lane
It is a quiet place, especially at night.
Too quiet, you’d be entitled to think, for any kind of monster to live among its pretty, tree-shaded lanes.
Indeed, at three o’clock in the morning in the village of Bishopthorpe, it is easy to believe the lie indulged in by its residents – that it is a place for good and quiet people to live good and quiet lives."
Synopsis: (on back)
Meet the Radleys

Peter, Helen and their teenage children, Clara and Rowan, live in an 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

From one of Britain’s finest young novelists comes a razor-sharp unpicking of adulthood and family life. 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.
                I saw this on a book review blog – I don’t remember which – but after I saw it I had to have it. How could I not? There is a white picket fence with blood on it. Had to read

                So glad I am so easily swayed!
                The Radleys is essentially a work about a dysfunctional British family where teenagers and sullen and uncommunicative and the parents jealously hide their secrets. The setting is a small British town, and the tone of the whole book is decidedly British. It’s a dry, hodge-podge narrative, with that characteristic Britishness that makes it almost other worldly.
The parents in this strange family are Helen and Peter. They are vampires. But are also abstainers. An abstainer is essentially a vampire who tries to live like a human by not drinking blood, and living with humans, in the sun, doing human-like things. Essentially, it is torture for vampires. The Abstainers have help in the form of The Abstainer’s Handbook, a collection of advice and mantras by other abstainers. The book is littered with snippets from the Abstainer’s Handbook – very amusing in ways, but also very poignant.
If blood is the answer, you are asking the wrong question.
The Abstainer’s Handbook (second edition), p.101
           And other such gems. The Abstainer Handbook is a great tool at bringing the reader back to those basoic principles of vampire abstainence that make all other forms of quitting cold turkey seem silly. I particular favourite is the imagination one: essentially it says, stop thinking, fill up your days so that you're too busy to think about what you're craving. Who hasn't read that in diet advice spreads, or cigarette quitting ads?

            The thing of it is that the Radleys are a new kind of abstainer – I mean, we have seen the vampire-who-abstains trope before . But in most if not all those cases, the vampires abstain from human blood, not all blood. In this world, any blood is forbidden – even Vampire blood, which is preferred by Vampires and not lethal to take.
This is a radical departure from the usual abstainer trope – this is a complete reversal of basic nature. But then, vampires are not exactly traditional in this world: they’re not undead; they don’t live forever; sun doesn’t kill them but does make them miserable; and, the police do know about them (and call them unnamed predators, or UP).  Vampires in this world can have kids, too – and they do: Helen and Peter have two teens – the mopey insomniac, Rowan, and his younger, vegan sister, Clara. Both these kids go to school at the local high school, and both think they are huge freaks – feeling very disconnected from human children, and not understanding why this is the case.

Everything turns on its head on a night of a party where a boy tries to rape Clara. The danger and adrenaline awaken her predatory instincts, and she attacks and drains the boy, not understanding why she thought to bite him, or why his blood tasted so right.But once she started, she couldn't stop - and then the boy - who just happens to be a neighbour of hers, is dead at her feet and the panicked teenaged girl desperately calls her parents for help. Helen, for lack of a more accurate term, freaks out and calls Will - Peter's estranged brother. The reader instantly understands that there's something there, but is not sure what. It is not only that Will is a free living blood drinking irresponsible vampire - but there is something hiding under the surface that pings an imaginary alarm and says something's up. Helen calls Will thinking Peter, who is uncertain about his own powers at getting rid of the boy's body (which include drinking some blood to get enough vampire powers to fly high into the air and dump the body into the sea), will not come through. To make it more complicated, Peter not only comes through, but Will shows up at their door in his messy van, with a load of past regrets in his eyes. 

I think my favourite of Will and Peter's flashbacks to their pasts is the one where it's explained why the brothers have such a strong, if dysfunctional, relationship. It all went back to when they were children, vampiric children, living on a houseboat with their vampiric parents. Hunters attack in the night - killing both sleeping parents. When they come after little brother, Peter, though - Will attacks and kills them all, essentially protecting his brother through a big risk on his own self. And this event, hailed time and again by Peter throughout the novel is what enabled him to be the beta to Will's alpha for most of their lives. It's a striking story in the same way that I am Legend hits you in the end - when you realize that the human guy, yeah, he's the scary one. In the same way, it hits you that these two young boys were visciously attacked and everything was taken from them - by humans. You get this tilt-a-whirl effect that makes you question who has what role in this world. 

And that is the beauty of this novel - it is an exercise in turning life and expectations on its head, while maintaining that carefully constructed British rural charm that it begins with: The story is an old one - one of love, lost and found, of growth and acceptance, metaphors for teenaged angst and so forth. But the way it's told, with the constant questioning of who is in the right and who will win in the end - and how anything can possible be saved after that - it's what makes it a unique story. 

The characters themselves are pretty intense - they are confused, agitated, frustrated and yearning - and in the case of the two teens, they are yearning for things they don't understand or know about because they don't even know what they are. Despite the fact that the characters themselves are prickly and hard to get along with, they seem to do fine in the little village - Peter is the local doctor, Helen is a painting housewife and the kids are content to try and stay below the radar at school. From this ordinariness comes chaos when the body of the boy is discovered, Will refuses to leave, Rowan has a crush on Clara's best friend - a human, and there is someone after them, solely because they're Radleys. 

The book is fast paced, aided by shorter chapters and quick dialogue, and the tone is, as mentioned, very British. The humour is dark and the wit is sharp - a perfect read for those of us who grew up during that time when the CBC showcased more British then Canadian television. It's a thinking funny, that has in a lot of soap opera, teen drama and family elements. Old secrets are harsh, and when they come out they come out with a vengeance. the dynamic between all the characters, as they rotate around one another is exciting to watch, and it's never quite clear how each character will react. And that, of course, makes them more real and a more entertaining read. 

The ending comes swiftly - so swiftly, in fact, that you are left wondering what just happened and how this could possibly be? But after I gave myself a couple of months to think it through, I came to the conclusion that the ending fits the story - it is open to possibilities. 

The writing itself was inspiring in a way that I have seen few replicate - it's quick, as mentioned, but not short on the details, and humour. The story runs along, picking up more information with each step, adding the world with each paragraph - complicating it ever more. It is refreshing to get these bite-sized packets if information, instead of having the whole world dumped in your lap on the first chapter. I much prefer gradually discovering a world in this way. 

The Radleys was my first taste of Matt Haig. He has written other books, notably The Dead Father's Club, the audio version of which, I currently grabbed off Audible.  If he worte that like he wrote this - I am in for a great read! Er ... listen. The Radleys is also being made into a BBC series or movie or mini series or something - which is sure to be pretty awesome!

I highly recommend The Radleys and think that it is a great edition to vampire literature. Also - the covers for this are awesome!

Next on my Reviews List: The Midwife of Venice


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