A review of Bird Box by Josh Malerman
Ecco (HarperCollins), 2014
by REBECCA, June 4, 2014
Something out there is making people crazy. When they see it, they lose their minds and kill. Others. Themselves. Everyone. Malorie doesn’t know what’s going on. Then, it’s later and Malorie hasn’t seen the world outside her house in four years. But today. Today she has to risk it. She has to take to the river to try and save herself. Today, she has to open her eyes.
HOLY SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE, BATMAN!
Bird Box is told in chapters that alternate between the present, when Malorie and her two children are rowing down the river, trying to find safety, and the past, when a mysterious . . . something . . . has just begun to threaten humanity.
In the past, Malorie and her sister, Shannon, just moved in together and are ready to start a new life when the news begins reporting strange stories of mysterious deaths in St. Petersburg, Yakutsk, Omsk. Then, closer to home, in Alaska. No one knows what the cause is, but people are turning on each other, killing each other and themselves. Little by little, the panic builds. What is it? Is it a disease? An attack? An epidemic? Bit by bit, people become scared even to leave their homes, because it seems like the people affected are those who see . . . something.
Shannon is terrified, but Malorie has other worries. She’s just realized she’s pregnant, and that seems scarier than some vague threat out there. But when Malorie can no longer deny what’s going on, she finds a house with people who are helping each other survive. Together, she, Felix, Jules, Cheryl, and Tom survive. All anyone knows is that the madness can’t get you if you can’t see it. So they block up the windows and seal all the doors. They live off canned goods and develop elaborate systems to get water from the well behind their house without ever opening their eyes. Malorie comes to love and depend on her housemates. But soon she’ll have to give birth. And, slowly, something is creeping closer to threaten the safe house they have made. But is the threat from outside, or from within?
In the present, Malorie lives alone with Boy and Girl, her four-year-olds. There is a fog this morning, and so Malorie decides it’s finally time to go. Under cover of fog, she thinks they can make it to the river, and then, safety? She isn’t sure. All she knows is that she has trained her children from birth to hear with an acuity no children in the before could have. And it’s their ability she will have to rely on as they make the trip down the river. Because they have to do it without ever opening their eyes.
Bird Box is an absolutely beautiful and harrowing horror story. Debut author Josh Malerman (lead singer of The High Strung) has crafted a story that is incredibly creeping and suspenseful (at one point, I found myself standing in my kitchen, reading as my water boiled because I absolutely had to see what happened next, and nearly screamed when my cat brushed up against my leg). It is, for me, the most exciting kind of horror story: one that is all about atmosphere and mystery and dread.
Alternating between past and present ups the suspense, but it also instructs the reader that this isn’t a story about what happened next. We begin in the present, so we already know what happened (kind of). It’s about how it happened, and how the characters reacted to it. That is to say, it’s a book that’s as much about ideas and psychology as it is about fear. There are multiple theories about what is going on in the world, and Malerman allows these theories to resonate throughout the book, never giving any definitive answers but always showing us the material consequences. His prose is tight and declarative and perfectly echoes the way Malorie has come to think in this new world.
Because Bird Box is a novel about the threat of the invisible—of that which absolutely can not be looked upon—the characters spend a great deal of time experiencing the world without sight. In the hands of a lesser writer, I think, this could feel like a gimmick. Malerman, though, manages to make the reader feel as claustrophobic, vulnerable, and jumpy as the characters do. The fact that the whole mystery could be revealed merely by removing the blindfold adds a layer of temptation that is titillating.
When I first read the blurb, I was nervous that this would be one of those post-terrible-world-event books where the main character just wanted to make the world safe for her children, or feels hope because she has her children. Bird Box was the opposite. This isn’t a book about the horrors of pregnancy (though that whole giving birth thing is its own scary story). Rather, it’s about the guilt and horror that Malorie feels about raising two children who have never seen the world outside. Who have never seen anyone but her. She has to put their safety above their comfort if they’re all going to survive, and the ways in which she must deny her children their childhood resonate beyond a book of speculative fiction. These are children growing up in a war-torn land who must learn to survive instead of learning to play, and that’s not the stuff of fiction.
Some reviewers, I know, are disappointed that more of the questions that Bird Box raises are not answered. For me, the denial of answers to the reader has the powerful effect of making the readers as helpless as the characters. If we could see what they cannot, I think, the reading experience wouldn’t be nearly as potent. More literally, the reader is in Malorie’s position narratively: we look at word after word, waiting for the threat to reveal itself, and once it does we cannot look away. I often found myself covering the recto side of the book so that my eyes couldn’t wander ahead and see something they shouldn’t. The experience of the medium of storytelling itself participating in the creation of fear was extremely disconcerting.
The one weakness of the novel, for me, was the characters. Though we are in Malorie’s head (primarily), she never really came to life for me. I was still desperately rooting for her—because, as I said, the reader is in her position. Still, though, certain moments would have had more resonance if the characters were a bit more fleshed out. Indeed, the character who came to life the most was the scariest! (Which is kind of awesome.) Still, the lack of character development had one positive side effect, which is that it leant a sense of real unease to the house they all share since their relationships feel so tentative and contingent.
Bird Box is a wonderful debut and a truly chilling horror story. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Josh Malerman.
procured from: the library