"THE RADLEYS." By Matt Haig. Free Press. $25.
OK, so it's yet another vampire novel. But before you bare your fangs and hiss at the mere thought, do give "The Radleys" a chance. The genius of novelist Matt Haig's book is that the vampirism takes a back seat -- a wet, bloody back seat, but still -- to the blackly comic family turmoil that's at the center of the story.
Haig effectively treats the unhinging, fiendish desire to feast on human blood as, well, just another unfortunate family dysfunction. Like alcoholism or drug addiction, only with hemoglobin.
Lots of authors take everyday characters and put them into extreme circumstances. Haig has a knack for doing the opposite, injecting his decidedly eccentric lead characters smack into the British middle class. (His 2008 novel, "The Labrador Pact," was a morality tale told by an erudite Labrador retriever.)
The Radleys of the title are a family of four living quietly in a suburban town. The parents, Peter and Helen, have kept just a teensy secret from their teenage children, Clara and Rowan: They're "abstaining" vampires. They keep "The Abstainer's Handbook" handy (if hidden) at all times, trusting its wisdom to guide them through the tricky times, including warnings to avoid hanging with the bad crowd: "Never invite a practicing vampire into your home. Even if he is a friend or a member of your family."
All that good advice goes to hell in a bloody handbasket when Radley daughter Clara -- who has recently become a vegan and is consequently anemic -- is nearly date-raped and lets her hitherto sheathed fangs out into the moonlight. Before she knows quite what she's doing, or that she even had fangs, for that matter, the molester has become, well, dinner. So much for veganism.
The parents 'fess up, leaving Clara and her brother Rowan both angry and confused. Here they've spent years enduring taunts for their weakness, migraines, pale skin and need for factor-50 sunblock, all in order to conceal their true nature?
The arrival of Peter's brother, practicing vampire Uncle Will, launches a nasty, interfamilial feud of good vs. evil; imagine "The Sopranos," only if Tony, et al., had literal bloodlust and the ability to fly.
Haig injects the proceedings with a walloping dose of wit, as when he provides a list of vampires through the ages: Homer, Ovid, Machiavelli, Caravaggio, Nietzsche, Bram Stoker (his anti-vampire propaganda came during his abstinence years), Jimi Hendrix.
The dialogue is also prime: "I mean, really," Peter laments to Helen at one point, "if we're like this, what's the use of being together? Think about it. The kids will be off to university and it will just be us, trapped in this bloodless excuse for a marriage."
The family's surname, in case you wondered, is a tribute to Boo Radley of "To Kill a Mockingbird" fame. "Yes, Boo, pale-faced, misunderstood suburban outsider, was definitely my inspiration," Haig told Publishers Weekly. He also learned that "Radley," meaning "of the red meadow," sports nice vampiric connotations.
Those of us who get quite attached to our literary vampires (I'm still missing Lestat) can rejoice: Haig is planning on sequels, and possibly a prequel starring Lord Byron. Take that, you "Twilight" mob. The trains of vampire lit and actual lit just met, in a glorious burst of sharp red.
-- Joy Tipping
The Dallas Morning News