One of the many things I’ve never got around to doing, since moving into my flat five years ago, is to get to know my neighbours. In fact we only really met properly at the start of this year, when I happened to run into them at the front door. Now we greet each other occasionally with a nod and a quick ‘hello’ (usually as I’m running past on my way to the station in the morning) but, although they seem very nice, I still know nothing about them, and have to base all my guesses about their lives on sights like this in the hallway outside our flats.
I’ve had a few interesting neighbours over the years. When I was at university, we lived next door to a young woman who used to have screaming rows with her boyfriend in the middle of the night, waking up her baby and us, and eventually vanished just as the police turned up looking for her. To this day I have no idea what she was up to, but she never came back.
Then there were the downstairs neighbours when my friend and I moved to London. Firstly, they had a dog which used to bark all the time and seemed only to stop when my friend got her piccolo out. Secondly, another lady in the building was convinced they were drug dealers, and kept coming upstairs to try and drag us into her campaign to get them out. Again, I have no idea if they were actually dodgy or not, or if she ever succeeded.
These are extreme stories of neighbours who made their presence felt – but what about those who just get on with things quietly? This is a subject examined by Matt Haig in his novel, The Radleys, a book that I picked up on a whim and knew nothing about, beyond the fact that it’s about a family with a secret. So I was a bit surprised when I started reading and discovered that the secret is – they’re actually abstaining vampires. (Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, it becomes obvious within about three pages.)
Peter and Helen Radley live in a small village in the north of England, with their two teenage children Rowan and Clara. They’ve chosen to give up their life as vampires, and not to tell the kids what they really are. So when Clara gets attacked by a boy at a party, her response is as much a shock to her as it is to him, and threatens to reveal the family’s secret to the world.
This is a very odd little book, and quite gory in places, but I loved it. The genius of it is that, despite the presence of vampires, it’s a very down-to-earth story, as the family do all they can to look like a regular suburban household. In fact if you chose any page at random, you wouldn’t necessarily know that there’s anything unusual about them at all. The children face normal teenage dilemmas, like bullying and unrequited love, while the grown-ups are struggling with their own dramas. Peter has a crush on the next door neighbour Lorna, who’s aware of his interest but doesn’t realise that what he actually wants is to drink her blood. Meanwhile Helen clearly has some history with Peter’s brother Will, who turns up to ‘help’ after Clara’s attack but actually makes things ten times worse.
Along the way, Haig manages to mix elements of horror and comedy with small town drama, whilst also re-writing history. Not only were several famous figures from history actually vampires, including Lord Byron and Jimi Hendrix, but in fact there are thousands of vampires living all over the UK as we speak, and an entire police department devoted to keeping an eye on them. This attention to detail even extends to an official glossary of vampire-related terms at the back of the book.
Finally, the novel makes the point that there’s good and bad in all of us. The Radleys may be vampires, but that doesn’t automatically make them evil. In fact they’re doing their best to be as good and law-abiding as possible, and fit in with the rest of the village. Will, on the other hand, is a complete psycho, who gives all vampires a bad name. Meanwhile, the human characters aren’t all good – the boys at school, for instance, are bullies who delight in making others’ lives a misery. I really enjoyed this light and shade in the characters; it would have been very easy to make all the vampires bad and all the humans innocent, and I was glad the author decided not to go down that road.
So if you think you know your neighbours, think again. There could be anything going on in there…