Bird Box, Josh Malerman’s first book, is an odd one. There are teensy grammar issues, inconsistencies, and an annoying coincidence at the climax, BUT I forgive everything. From the beginning, this book was glued to my fingers. I wanted to skim to figure out the ending sooner, but so enjoyed the creepy ride that I forced myself to stay the course. This self-control was worth it. The premise of Bird Box is simple: there is a worldwide epidemic that when people see something (the “thing” remains unknown) they go instantly, violently mad. In their frenzied state, they kill themselves and sometimes others too. Survivors get through by boarding up their houses, locking doors, and only going outside while blindfolded. Years into this new reality, Malorie begins a blindfolded journey with two children to find a safe place.
The story is split into alternating halves. We meet Malorie in the kitchen of a specially rigged house: there are microphones scattered around and all windows are covered. She has two 4-year-old children, a girl and boy, who are both unnamed. There are a number of gory bloodstains around the house. For Malorie’s background, we rewind almost 5-years to when “the Problem” was just beginning and reports of bizarre suicides and murders came from all over the world. When Malorie found herself pregnant and alone, she sought help and found a safe-house with a group of strangers. This is the house she lives in for the “present day” sections. There is immediate suspense: the reader knows something terrible will happen to her housemates, because she is alone four years later in a bloody house.
It’s hard to get a finger on what, exactly, will happen. Malerman switches between past and present, somehow keeping both taut. The flashbacks are automatically more compelling because they are spent waiting for the axe to fall. The range and clash of so many personalities in one house builds the tension (remember, they can’t leave). With one exception, the housemates are kind, relatable people; I was genuinely concerned about their well-being. The sections of Malorie’s journey (via canoe!) with her children to the next safe place are similarly intense, but the kids are the book’s weakest element. Malorie has trained them from birth to wake with their eyes closed and to listen. The result is two children with supernatural hearing, who are the two best behaved (though damaged) toddlers you could meet. There are a couple scenes in which their hearing feels overblown:
She has seen the children do incredible things. Once, after flipping through the phone book, the Boy called out that she was on page one hundred and six. He was close. (279-280)
Eh. What do you think? Too much? As present-day Malorie travels, her sections become formulaic: she rows, the kids hear something scary, then they end on a cliff-hanger. These sections build upon one another, but there’s little drive until you learn (via flashback) the bare outline of where they’re headed. I wonder if this small detail could have been dropped in sooner so the reader better understands Malorie’s goal. When so much detail is spent putting the reader into the boat with her, this is an odd thing to hold back. It wasn’t until I learned how thin Malorie’s hope was that her previous fear and current desperation solidified.
I don’t want to say too much, for fear of giving something away. I read this book with minimal knowledge beforehand and was well-rewarded. As mentioned in the intro, there are little foibles and missteps, but I’m not going to go on a diatribe about inconsistencies in how animals respond to the “creatures”. I didn’t notice some of the errors until other reviews pointed them out, to be honest. I was completely invested in this story and put down my mental red pen to read it. It’s just so /different/. There are obvious parallels to various dystopian works, but only in the loose sense that everything turns to crap at some future date.
I’ve also seen criticism that there’s no answer; the reader never learns anything about the creatures or any cause of “the Problem”. This makes sense in terms of narrative: if everyone who sees them is incapable of discussing them… there’s not going to be a lot of description. Because the story is so focused on Malorie, there is no wider view of a worldwide response beyond the blindfold solution. To me, this ups the scare factor. Malorie and her housemates are isolated. No one is coming to save them. And instead of reading descriptions of something vague in the shadows, there are precise descriptions of sounds which remain ambiguous: is that a creature crossing the lawn, an animal, what is it? Add in the blindfolds and this book taps that classic fear: I can’t see anything…is something standing behind me? I’m glad we don’t use wells anymore, because I’d be too much a wuss to use one after this book.
Translation: Reading it straight through is highly recommended. The little cliffhangers are less irksome and you will be too distracted to do anything else until you’re through.