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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review: 'The Radleys'

THE RADLEYS
By Matt Haig
Fiction
December 2010
Free Press
ISBN: 978-1439194010

Suburban ennui and angst fill the days and nights of the Radley family in a middle class Yorkshire village. Peter remembers when he and his so proper wife, Helen, had good times. Helen frets about appearances. Really, really frets. Teen son Rowan is the favorite whipping boy of the school bullies. And disaffected daughter Clara is trying to be a vegan.

As a portrait of an aimless modern family, The Radleys is spot on. Everyone slogs through their days and wonders every night what became of their dreams.

But there are slight clues, rather meant to be obvious, that the dull Radleys are not what they seem in Matt Haig's clever novel. Peter turns very ill when the neighbor serves an appetizer drenched in garlic. When the same neighbor rubs her foot along Peter's leg, his discomfort and curiosity are painted in with precise dark humor strokes. Then Clara goes to a teen party out in the fields. When a loutish boy attacks her, her self-defense results in horror movie mutilation.

And now that she's drunk human blood, her parents have to tell the kids the truth. They're all vampires. Peter's calling his estranged brother Will for help. And the father of the new neighbor who Rowan fancies is a disgraced police inspector with a very personal grudge against the Radleys' kind.

The attempts of Peter and Helen to lead "good and quiet lives", as the opening of the novel says, is a lie. Not quite the kind of lie found in, say, Cheever country. But Haig does a brilliant job of showing that no matter how outrageous the lie, the way it eats at fundamentally decent but flawed people can be devastating. Redemption seems a bleak prospect but not impossible. As the Radleys face their true nature, there is the kind of blossoming that is possible only when people are honest with themselves.

In short chapters that often pivot among the family members, Haig also ratchets up narrative tension as Will's charming selfishness and the mundane world of conformity and law enforcement inevitably collide. Uncle Will was fascinating when he went on about Jimi Hendrix and Byron. But, as with all monsters, he puts himself first and becomes more of a threat than anything outside the family.

The story could have gone several ways, and it can be debated whether every turn was the "proper" one. It is easy to say, though, that it is a satisfying conclusion to what could easily have gone wrong once all the aspects were set into motion. What's best is the way that Haig changes tone throughout the story, switching from very dark comedy to pathos to tragedy, using both broad brushstrokes and pointalist dotting as easily as any master artist.

For a different way to look at how we all try to fit in, and how the monsters look at themselves, The Radleys is a fascinating tale. We may never look at those odd neighbors next door or down the street quite the same way again.

©2010 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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