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This site is dedicated to exploring children's fiction.
I write it, read it, teach it and increasingly feel the need to talk about. Please feel free to join the conversation otherwise it will be a monologue and they can get quite dull.
My current project is concerned with transformations in children's writing.
If you have any suggestions or favourite books which deal with transformation please let me know.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Radleys: Matt Haig

This book really worked for me. It is very funny and witty but manages to stay the right side of comic pastiche. It plays with the current vampire cliches in interesting ways and while being as much about adults as teens, delivers a story with enough drama and emotional content to keep the reader engaged. I was also really pleased to read something written in part from a male point of view - almost all the books I have read recently have been written exclusively from the female point of view and I've missed male voices. If I feel like this is it any wonder that boys can feel excluded? The plot is nice and tight too which is a relief and it is good to see a bit omniscient viewpoint writing for a change - present tense too and I think that all adds to the freshness of it.

The Radleys are trying to live a normal life following the advice in 'the Abstainers Handbook' but are vampires, although at the beginning of the story the children don't yet know it. The daughter,Clara, is a vegan who, like all the family, battles ill health: headaches, weakness, sore eyes, skin rashes and insomnia. All is revealed when a boy who has been bullying Clara's brother Rowen, follows her after a party and tries to force himself on her. She bites him in self defence and finds she can't stop. In panic her father, Peter, calls on his brother Will, a wildly unreformed vampire, for help and dumps the body of Clara's victim at sea. The mother, Helen, is desperate for Will to stay away for reasons of her own. Just before her marriage he Will manipulated her into allowing him to 'convert' her to vampirism: he is also Rowan's father - both facts she has kept secret from her husband. Will gets Rowan drinking vampire blood and generally stirs things up. He is well known to the police anti vampire squad. For some time he had been immune from prosecution by special arrangement but his unwillingness to be discreet about his murdering has now changed that. When the body of Clara's victim is washed ashore with Clara's DNA all over it, the police promise Helen not to prosecute Clara if Helen kills Will. Her connection with her former lover and converter is too strong and she can't do it, but Rowan can and does. There is a nice oedipal echo when Rowan kills his father after, if not having sex with his mother, inadvertently drinking her blood, Will's most precious possession. (In revenge for Rowan smashing this bottle Will bites Rowan's girl friend leaving her all but dead) Rowan rushes to save his mother from Will's clutches and decapitates him. If this seems rather convoluted it makes perfect sense in the book. Rowan saves his girlfriend by making her a vampire and the story ends with the vampires choosing a third way between abstinence and murderous blood lust by electing to buy bottled vampire blood from a vampire nightclub. As no one is killed in the process this somehow still sits with Clara's ethical veganism.
What is unusual in a book for teens is that the mandatory sexual undercurrent comes not from the young people whose desires are either unformed or romantically innocent, but from the triangular relationship between Helen, Will and Peter. I suppose the idea of middle aged vampire sex is as intrinsically funny as the references to famous vampires in history and Will's enthusiasm for drinking the blood of goths, but it does anchor this otherwise whacky fantasy in something real. There is, in spite of the jokes, an emotional honesty here and the book ends with Helen and Pete having wild ( but not explicit) vampire sex. Vampires just like everyone else have to find their own way of dealing with temptation that doesn't involve the denial of their authentic selves.
I was also interested in the rather vehement denial of the efficacy of crucifixes and holy water as just catholic propaganda. Haig seems to belong to the school of 'secular vampirism' which deals with it as a polite kind of otherness, differently human perhaps, which disconnects it from its dark origins an evil alternate immortality - eternal death as opposed to christian eternal life. This approach works fantastically well in this book and to be fair Will is suitably despicable in a completely credible way, but it seems to be part of a trend which loses some of the resonance of the vampire legend by rehabilitating them or reinventing them for a more materialist age - or maybe its just funnier that way.

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