Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This neighborhood sucks.

Have we finally reached a sort of event horizon for vampire literature? Ever since the Twilight phenomenon (weird in and of itself - why wasn't The Silver Kiss as inexplicably popular?), there's been a seemingly endless tide of vampire fiction. It's even spawned its own shelf at Barnes and Noble ("teen paranormal fiction," if you were wondering, encompassing everything from vampires, ghosts, zombies, and aliens). It's a long way from Varney the Vampire, that's for sure.

But here is another little vampire novel from Matt Haig, The Radleys. Does Haig have anything new to say about vampires? The premise is very promising, but the execution falls flat, tripped up by stock characters and a narrative too limited to squash everything into it that Haig wants to say.

The titular Radleys live in a small English town. Pete and Helen are living familiar lives of quiet desperation, bored of their marriage and their suburban life. Their children, Clara and Rowan, are teased and bullied at their small high school. The siblings are delicate and fragile, prone to weird rashes, constant headaches, nausea, and sunburns.

Oh, and they have to wear SPF 60 sunblock. All the time. Because they're vampires, which Pete and Helen have neglected to tell them. That seems borderline abusive to me, like forcing a kid with a nut allergy to eat peanut butter sandwiches every day. In Haig's vampirology, vampires can go without drinking blood, although they're weakened by their constant craving. They're still allergic to garlic and animals hate them, but the Radleys seem to be doing a pretty good job blending in in Bishopthorpe.

Pete and Helen are quibbling over whether to tell their children the truth when Clara forces their hand by killing (and mostly eating) the neighborhood bully. Clara takes the news with startling equanimity, although it forces her to abandon her plan to become a vegan, but Rowan has a harder time accepting the news. Especially since their parents have given up all the cool parts of vampirism in exchange for a boring life of migraines and sunburn.

Desperate to cover up Clara's crime, Pete calls his brother Will, an unabashed blood drinker with a complicated relationship with Helen. To further complicate matters, Clara's best friend (and Rowan's object of thwarted adolescent desire), Eve, has an unhinged father who has been tracking Will to exact revenge for the murder of his wife.

Oh, and there's a branch of the English police force dedicated to prosecuting vampiric crime, willing to accept the occasional snatch-and-slurp in exchange for the vampire population of England remaining more or less peaceable and law-abiding.

The Radleys can't decide what it wants to be. It's part portrait of a dissolving marriage, part indictment of the mindless routine of suburbia, part coming-of-age story, part crime thriller, and it doesn't do either part particularly well. Clara and Rowan, bloodthirstiness aside, are presented as more palatable than their classmates. Clara's victim is, conveniently, a grotesque, lumbering bully. The introduction of a policewoman tasked with bringing Will to justice seems odd and unnecessary, and the dashing Will is more laughable than menacing, as he lures teenaged check-out girls into his van to dispatch them on a grubby mattress.

Haig is a good writer, with a keen eye for phrases, but his characters are familiar to the point of boredom and he doesn't focus on either one long enough to make the reader care. The narrative runs in so many directions that it never gains much traction plot-wise. The story wraps up with a neat and convenient ending that takes a page from Tru Blood, and humans and bloodsuckers live happily ever after, side by side, which seems about as stultifying as the quiet strees of Bishopthorpe.

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