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Mar 15

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

What’s It About

It’s another post apocalyptic novel.  (Including Bird Box I’ve now read six of the buggers this year).  On this occasion the cause of humanity’s mass destruction is a phenomena that when seen drives a person into a suicidal rage.

Malorie is a survivor and the mother of two four-year old kids, both of whom have been trained with the ability to “see” with their ears.  The three of them are about to set off on a journey into the outside world, where the act of opening your eyes is a death sentence.

Should I Read It?

A reserved yes.  Of the six James Herbert award finalists, it’s by far the most chilling.  Malerman’s sparse, blunt prose is very effective at describing those claustrophobic moments when characters are forced outside – whether it’s to search for food or get water from the well – with their eyes closed.

At its most interesting Bird Box is a novel about motherhood and responsibility and guilt.  However, for the most part the book follows the same well trodden ground as most post-apocalyptic narratives.

Still, if you want to read a short novel that’s competently written with some genuine scares than Bird Box is recommended.

Representative Paragraph

An example of what happens when you see the phenomena (as related by Tom):

‘It started with George gasping. Like he had something lodged in his throat. He’d been up there two hours and hadn’t made a sound. Then he starting calling to us.

‘Tom! You piece of shit. Get up here. Get up here.’

He would giggle, then scream, then howl. He sounded like a dog. We heard the chair bang hard against the floor. He was screaming profanities. Jules rose to go help him and I grabbed his arm to stop him. There was nothing we could do except listen. And we heard the entire thing. All the way until the crashing of the chair and the screaming stopped. Then we waited. We waited for a long time. Eventually, we went upstairs together. Blindfolded, we turned the VCR off, then opened our eyes. We saw what George had done to himself. He’d pressed so hard against the ropes that they had gone through his muscles all the way to the bone. His entire body looked like cake frosting, blood and skin folded over the ropes in his chest, his belly, his neck, his wrists, his legs. Felix threw up. Don and I knelt beside George and began cleaning. When we were finished, Don insisted we burn the tape. So we did. And while it was burning I couldn’t stop thinking that with it went our first real theory. It seems that no matter what prism you view them through, they’ll hurt you.’

Commentary

The intriguing idea at the core of Bird Box is what if you lived in a post apocalyptic world where walking outside with your eyes open was a death sentence.  Not only is this the sort of high concept, thirty-second elevator pitch that has formed the bedrock of Hollywood for the last century – Universal, recognising this, optioned the book in 2013 – but at a story level it’s an idea that promises all sorts of possibilities.  It’s a shame then that Malerman takes, for the most part, a meat and potatoes approach.

The book is split into two distinct plot threads.  Story number one is set four years post the apocalypse where Malorie and her two four-year old children – a boy and a girl named… “boy” and “girl” – are preparing to go outside for the first time since the children were born.  The second story is essentially an extended flashback set four years in the past where Malorie has just discovered she’s pregnant and the first reports are coming in about a phenomena driving people to suicidal rage.  It’s the flashback story-line, which dominates the novel, where the meat and potato approach is evident.  If you’ve read a post apocalypse novel (and I’ve now read six of the buggers) you’ll be very familiar with the journey Malorie takes after her sister dies from seeing… well.. whatever it is that’s driving people to cut their own throats.  That story goes something like this:

  • Malorie leaves her own home…
  • Finds a small group of survivors living in a house nearby…
  • Malorie and the survivors consider their options…
  • Much paranoia, claustrophobia and the fear of dwindling supplies ensues.

And in among all that you get visitors to the house, banging on the door and asking to be let in which sets the residents off on the usual clichéd discussions about “can we trust them” and “how do we know they’re not already crazy” etc.

Fortunately, all this predictability is broken up by Malorie’s river journey with her two children – all of them blindfolded.  Not only are these scenes tense and gripping, but Malerman uses this part of the novel to draw out themes on motherhood, responsibility and guilt.  Malorie is weighed down by how she has treated these children over the last four years, training them to see with their ears while refusing them the beauty of the outside world.  And the guilt, at times, overwhelms her:

You’re a bad mother, she thinks. For not finding a way to let them know the vastness of the sky. For not finding a way to let them run free in the yard, the street, the neighborhood of empty homes and weathered parked cars. Or granting them a single peek, just once, into space, when the sky turns black and is suddenly, beautifully, spotted with stars. You are saving their lives for a life not worth living.

Thankfully, the novel makes no judgement whether Malorie’s actions as a mother and a survivor are warranted, avoiding a dull debate about the ends justifying the means.  As a result, these scenes have a depth to them that’s absent from the rest of the novel.

Having said that, I did struggle to get my head around how Malorie kept two infants / toddlers alive for four years with no help.  The house they are living in was well stocked, but there would still have been a need to forage and hunt outside.  Malerman glosses over this, making vague references to Malorie learning how to fish with her eyes shut.  There’s also the neat coincidence that the house is situated right next to a well that’s supplied with fresh water.  I suppose in a post apocalyptic nightmare everyone needs a break.

Bird Box should be the benchmark for contemporary horror.  The yardstick that determines whether it’s worth bothering to publish the next zombie apocalypse, mutant tapeworm or vampire-with-a-twist novel.  Because while Bird Box isn’t a great book, it does get the basics right.  The writing is competent, the characters are believable, the novels themes are well handled and the book maintains a level of tension (and the odd scare) throughout.

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