Book review: The Radleys, Matt Haigh

The Radleys book coverThis book was completely not what I was expecting. I picked it up last year in a book sale, recognising it as a title my big sister had mentioned, in passing, as being quite a good read. This is the blurb:

Life with the Radleys: Radio 4, dinner parties with the Bishopthorpe neighbours and self-denial. Loads of self-denial. But all hell is about to break loose. When teenage daughter Clara gets attacked on the way home from a party, she and her brother Rowan finally discover why they can’t sleep, can’t eat a Thai salad without fear of asphyxiation and can’t go outside unless they’re smothered in Factor 50. With a visit from their lethally louche uncle Will and an increasingly suspicious police force, life in Bishopthorpe is about to change. Drastically.

…which I managed to read as “They look like a normal family! But actually, they’re vampires! Hilarity and wacky consequences ensue!” That, and the quotes on the cover from Vogue and the Daily Mail pronouncing it to be “great fun” and “addictive” led me to believe that this would be a kind of black-comedy chick-lit, with vampires. That was… not quite the case.

First off, I have to say I did enjoy this book. The tone was just not what I was expecting, which threw me. I wouldn’t describe it as black comedy after all – although there were a few lines that made me smile (the part where Will is reminiscing about his and Peter’s parents, and “the time they brought a freshly killed department store Santa Claus home for their midnight Christmas feast”, stood out as a wonderfully vicious throwaway line), the tone overall was surprisingly serious. I couldn’t quite decide whether the writer wanted you to take the book seriously, or if it was just meant as a parody of the current craze for vampire novels. Apart from the fact of their being vampires, the Radleys are portrayed as a fairly stock “dysfunctional family” – the bullied son, the self-conscious daughter, and the husband and wife stuck in a loveless marriage and gradually drifting apart from each other. None of the characters exactly had tons of depth, but I wouldn’t expect that from a light read like this. They were all quite likeable, particularly the son, Rowan, who reminded me a bit of a vampire Adrian Mole.

I found the uncle, Will, a practising vampire (i.e. he still kills people, unlike the rest of the abstaining Radleys) the most interesting character in the book. Haig pulls off the unlikely feat of making this cold-blooded murderer seem like quite a decent bloke, sympathetic even – for most of the book, at least. The descriptions of, and references to, his killings were much more graphic and brutal than I had expected – not a bad thing at all though, I like my vampires vicious!

This book attempts a tricky balancing act between gentle suburban dysfunctional family tropes on the one hand, and proper bloody horror on the other, and almost succeeds. The thing that let it down for me really was the ending, which I found a bit unsatisfying: it felt far too contrived for me, too neat. That’s a small criticism though for a book that otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

And hey, look: I managed to write a whole review of a vampire novel without referring to it as “a story with real bite” or “a book to sink your teeth into”!

Verdict: 3/5

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  1. I read this at the end of last year (it was very cheap on Kindle) and like you I enjoyed it but it’s not a book I’ll remember or what to read again


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