“It’s that time of year and what better way to celebrate the season with a book that will try its best to play tricks on you. No mind games (maybe a smidge), but when you’re not allowed to see anything, everything around you is your enemy,” is everything I would have wrote if I had published this BEFORE Halloween; yet, here we are, days after the best time of the year with a novel ripe for this breezy, chilly, foggy season.
Debuting last year, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box is a suspenseful, mysterious novel that’s an infectious read. You’re compelled to keep reading, whether it’s to learn more about a) the mysterious creatures that cause people to ‘erase’ themselves b) what happened four years that left Malorie, our female protagonist, the lone adult survivor in the house with her children Boy and Girl [not at all emotionally detached] c) if Malorie can survive long enough to reach her destination while blindfolded, her only defense against the creatures.
After a one-night stand, Malorie discovers that she is pregnant, and as it so happens, there’s a bigger catastrophic phenomenon sweeping the planet known as the Russian Report, thought to be where the phenomenon occurred. People go insane, sometimes committing murder, but always ending with the infected person committing suicide.
When the disease hits Alaska, Malorie along with her sister Shannon take refuge in their house, knowing that to survive, they must board up their house to prevent whatever it is that’s causing people to, as the media calls it, ‘self-destruct’. After Malorie’s sister dies, Malorie leaves to seek help at a house occupied by a few survivors. It becomes more apparent though that the people of this new world have lost more than the luxury of their sight.
In way of its narration, Malerman disperses with two time lines: four years after the Russian Report and the days leading up to Malorie’s pregnancy. Immediately, we are introduced to the chaos and horrors of the new world coinciding with her unexpected pregnancy (a not so subtle metaphor.) There’s rarely a moment to pause to consider anything for very long.
Malerman invents an intriguing yet isolating world. He takes the one aspect of everyday life that we take for granted and undermines our own security. Having read John Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids, a global plague of blindness that infects anyone witness to the meteor shower, Malerman’s novel similarly evokes the chilling fear and helplessness, but unlike Triffids, Bird Box is more abstract; the creatures are never revealed and much about what happens to the world remains unanswered. Identifying and knowing what we’re afraid is one thing, but not having an idea of the monster’s shape or its thoughts is another. And this is assuming that there were creatures at all.
While Bird Box is not the most descriptive of novels considering its premise of taking refuge in a safe house and wearing a blindfold when going outside, it’s rapid firing sensory descriptors triggers just the right imagery and appropriate tension. The characters’ vulnerability is palpable when they’re feeling their way through the backyard or to a house next door. Without sight, the emotions are intensified, leaving a lot of the characters and their reactions to situations raw. Subsequently, Bird Box is left with the bare minimum, its characters skeletons and metaphors flimsy.
With its excellent pacing and its white-knuckling moments, Box inadvertently forgoes any real character development. Malorie, although undergoes significant trauma, is an observer, who oddly surfaces as the reluctant leader-drill-sergeant mother. This is not to belittle her experiences (her experience with giving birth made my insides and my vagina lurch: never, ever, EVER, having kids,) but the glut of character development is lost, which usually occurs in most post-apocalyptic stories when the circumstances of the new world subsume the plot and characters’ own lives. Auto drive sets in and characters’ ambitions are abandoned for survival. Malorie embodies this notion as does her housemates. To my disappointment, I can only describe each character with one word.
Most of what I loved about the style and fluidity doesn’t compensate for its clumsy symbolism, i.e., the bird box. While the image itself is spectacular, Malorie and the children under a canopy of mad birds, there’s hardly anything else. Even the bird imagery, which potentially has several meanings, feels awkward. It’s the one part of the novel that feels out of place. Usually I love when a novel’s title finds its way onto the pages, yet this may be a rare instance when I wish it had just stayed as the book’s title. It ends up being more literal than a metaphor.
Box had only two viable conclusions, which is something I usually don’t enjoy. This is very much a novel about survival, testing one’s limitations, and what part of your humanity are you willing to discard. With few surprises, Bird Box is still entertaining and creepy and will fill up your afternoon with excitement; however, if you’re susceptible to these kinds of stories (like me), do yourself a favor and keep it away from your nightstand before going to bed. One of the last few passages of the books is one that’ll haunt anyone with a reproductive system.