Synopsis from Goodreads: Just about everyone knows a family like the Radleys. Many of us grew up next door to one. They are a modern family, averagely content, averagely dysfunctional, living in a staid and quiet suburban English town. Peter is an overworked doctor whose wife, Helen, has become increasingly remote and uncommunicative. Rowan, their teenage son, is being bullied at school, and their anemic daughter, Clara, has recently become a vegan. They are typical, that is, save for one devastating exception: Peter and Helen are vampires and have–for seventeen years–been abstaining by choice from a life of chasing blood in the hope that their children could live normal lives. One night, Clara finds herself driven to commit a shocking–and disturbingly satisfying–act of violence, and her parents are forced to explain their history of shadows and lies. A police investigation is launched that uncovers a richness of vampire history heretofore unknown to the general public. And when the malevolent and alluring Uncle Will, a practicing vampire, arrives to throw the police off Clara’s trail, he winds up throwing the whole house into temptation and turmoil and unleashing a host of dark secrets that threaten the Radleys’ marriage.
The inclusion of vampires in a novel would usually be a deal-breaker automatically excluding it from my to-read pile but I loved Matt Haig’s The Humans so much that I wanted to read all his other books and this was the first one I found in the library. The vampire element of the story was at times a little annoying as it was a bleedingly obvious (pun intended) metaphor for forbidden/repressed desire (especially sex and alcohol/drugs); but Matt Haig created a believable underground subculture around it, complete with acronyms and even its own social networking site which was enjoyable to read. The entire book was enjoyable to read, in fact (although the very short chapters were perhaps a little too short for my taste) - written with a light touch without being asinineand with an excellent command of dialogue. The scenes in which Rowan is bullied at school were so realistic that they were uncomfortable to read; and although the ending was fairly predictable I found the last 30 pages or so of the novel very suspenseful.
But… I felt The Radleys was let down by its characterisation. I couldn’t relate to any of the main cast, perhaps because (with the exception of Will) they didn’t have any real depth or complexity and instead fit into stereotypes: Rowan is the sensitive geeky teenage poet, Clara the animal rights girl who also loves shopping, Peter feels invisible and is on the verge of having an affair just for something to do and Helen… she was completely flat, a woman subsumed by marriage and motherhood. Perhaps their being so stereotyped was the point though – that they appear to be the most “normal” family around despite their paranormal secret. The unoriginality of the plot may be part of “the point” too, as this is a tale that’s been told many times before – the Rowan/Eve storyline in particular reads like Twilight reimagined in Yorkshire.
Many goodreads reviewers mention a strong sense of family and loyalty between the Radleys as an asset to the novel but I felt that Peter and Helen’s hollow marriage was a barrier to this, though there was clout to the parent-child and brother-sister relationships (in fact Rowan and Clara have the best sibling relationship I’ve read about in a while).
I wanted to enjoy The Radleys more than I did (partly because I think Matt Haig is an all-round awesome person and love the way he openly discusses mental health and writes about writing on his blog), and hoped it would be a bit funnier than it was (it’s a bit of an absurd story with some humour inherent, but there weren’t any LOL moments for me). I think it would (or indeed will, as apparently the film rights have been bought) make an excellent movie – possibly with Simon Pegg aged up a bit to be Peter as it’s the sort of story you’d expect him and Nick Frost to be involved with (Nick Frost can play the local police detective character). It hasn’t put me off reading my way through Matt Haig’s other books and I still recommend that everyone out there read The Humans, though you’ll maybe want to give this one a miss unless you’re a big fan of vampire tales.