Try as they might, the Radley family can’t quite be normal. On the surface, everything looks ordinary enough. They live in a perfect home on a quiet street in a pleasant village. Husband Peter is a doctor, and wife Helen stays home with the kids. Sure, Rowan, their son, has some skin problems that make it hard for him to stay in the sun. And daughter Clara’s recent turn to veganism has caused her to feel weak all the time. These things can be dealt with, as long as their secret remains hidden.
You see, the titular family in Matt Haig’s novel is actually a family of abstaining vampires. With the help of The Abstainer’s Handbook, a guide to life without drinking blood, Peter and Helen have built what looks like a typical family life. They’ve done such a good job, in fact, that Rowan and Clara aren’t even aware of their true natures. But circumstances conspire to force Peter and Helen to reveal their secret to their children, and all four of the Radleys must decide what path they are going to take.
This book, which I first learned about on Annabel’s blog, is quite a lot of fun. The vampire world that Haig has created includes its own vocabulary (unbloods for ordinary humans, OBT for Overwhelming Blood Thirst), its own cultural background, and its own heroes. I got a chuckle out of many of the names of vampires who gained fame in the unblood world. Some (Machiavelli, Lord Byron) were obvious, but how about Bram Stoker, who eventually became an abstainer and wrote anti-vampire propaganda? Or Douglas Sirk, believed to be the source of the term sirker, for abstaining vampires who long to lapse? It’s not subtle humor, but it brought a smile to my face just the same.
The story itself is well-constructed. It’s not generally filled with major shocks and thrilling twists, although the story does take a few clever turns that I didn’t fully expect. There’s conflict aplenty, both external and internal. There’s a murder, a cover-up, a police investigation, and some dark secrets from the past. The chapters are very short (sometimes just a page or two), as Haig shifts from one character to another. Sometimes short chapters like this can make a book feel choppy, but I didn’t find that to be true here. Mostly, it just accentuated how quickly the story unfolded.
The abstaining vampire concept is not entirely new, but I really enjoyed the way Haig spun it into a book that is as much as riff on the modern suburban angst novel as it is a clever take on the vampire myth. Vampirism is frequently used metaphorically, to represent illicit or uncontrollable desires; and Haig milks that metaphor like crazy. There’s vampirism as adulterous desire, vampirism as teen sexual awakening, vampirism as violent urges. For each member of the family, vampirism means something just a little different. And at the core of the book is the idea that every seemingly normal family is abnormal in its way. Peter and Helen Radley have bought into the myth of a normal family, and such an existence is not possible for them, for obvious reasons. But is it possible for anyone? Sometimes Haig pushes the metaphors a little too hard, but I really didn’t mind. I liked the characters, and this was such a quick read that I never had the chance to feel like Haig was hammering the points into my head.
Put simply, The Radleys is a good fun book, with just the right blend of comedy, thrills, and human insight to awaken my own OBT (Overwhelming Book Thirst).