In a sleepy little town at the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, the Radley family leads a relatively comfortable, conventional life. Like a lot of long-married couples, local GP Peter and his wife Helen have let the spark fade from their relationship, while their teenagers Rowan and Clara face predictable adolescent problems: skin complaints and school bullies.
Yet they are unlike their literary namesake in at least one crucial detail. While Harper Lee's Boo Radley was misunderstood, the taunts of "freak" that follow the family in Matt Haig's new novel aren't too far from the facts. Unbeknown even to Rowan and Clara, they and their parents all belong to that most fashionable of freak cliques: they are vampires. Abstaining vampires, maybe, but vampires all the same.
Like many of its more generic horror relatives, The Radleys questions the wisdom of suppressing one's base natural appetites. Peter and Helen have raised their unsuspecting children according to the precepts of "The Abstainers Handbook", a popular self-help tome among guilt-ridden vamps. Yet the decision seems to have drained their lives not only of its greatest physical pleasure – yup, human blood – but of its emotional highs, too. The family are quintessentially repressed, depressed English folk.
The teenagers stumble upon their true identities when Clara's attempts at vegetarianism fail in spectacularly violent fashion. Yet readers will have guessed some time before, courtesy of the Radleys' extreme susceptibility to sunburn and their reverse-Carpenters effect on birds, which flutter away as they approach.
Haig has retained the Bram Stoker standards of fangs and blood-sucking, but his vampires can survive in sunlight, despite the nasty rash it causes, and even die of old age, albeit extreme (Lord Byron, a particularly famous vampire among his own kind, is believed to be alive and living under an assumed name as an Ibiza DJ). Sadly, these alterations to the conventional mythology feel less like interesting twists than the distortions necessary to facilitate Haig's plot.
There is also the unfortunate matter of the vampire's current cultural ubiquity. We already have, just for starters, Twilight and True Blood – both hit novels turned into screen sensations – to slake our blood-thirsts. The first uses vampirism as a vehicle for teen angst, the second for the struggles of social and cultural assimilation.
Haig attempts both, but what his novel resembles more than either is the Harry Potter novels – more precisely, those scenes from JK Rowling's series set in ordinary "Muggle" society, where Harry's aunt and uncle do their utmost to stifle their nephew's magical tendencies. Little surprise, then, that the Mexican film-maker Alfonso Cuaron – director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – plans to produce a film version of Haig's novel.
Who is The Radleys for? Its clichés about the constricting mores of middle-class life are perhaps meant for an adult audience, but its satirical touches lack sophistication. The older characters and their relationships seem undercooked and over-familiar. If, on the other hand, it is intended for teens, then it contains a playground romance sufficiently cringeworthy for anyone raised on a bloodless diet of RPattz movies.
Despite its faults, however, The Radleys is a passable page-turner. If its function was to secure a film deal, it has performed the task admirably. And if it indeed has Cuaron's expert hand at the tiller, it will have every chance of becoming that rare thing: a movie that is better than the book.Reuse content