Bird Box by Josh Malerman
The first thing that interested me about Bird Box (despite some reservations over the scope of the apocalypse setting) was its premise. Like Wyndham's classic Day of the Triffids and several subsequent works Bird Box is an apocalypse with a theme of sight, but one taken in a slightly unusual direction.
The story begins with Malorie, who is leaving the house she and her two children have lived in alone for the past four years to undertake a hazardous twenty mile boat trip up river. The catch however is that Malorie lives in a world populated with creatures the very sight of which send people into insane, suicidal rage. Malorie therefore can only risk the outside world while blindfolded, and so must rely only on her hearing and that of her children to know what dangers lurk around her.
The main action of the book therefore shuttles between Malorie's journey up river and her flashbacks to the events that lead her to that point, particularly her time living in an enclosed house with several other survivors, their tense dull domestic lives and how things eventually fell apart. The first thing that will quickly become apparent, and a fact I cannot praise enough is that Malerman's ability to uniquely capture the experience of hearing and not seeing, and being surrounded by unidentifiable sounds in a hostile world is simply chilling. The entire book, both present and past is written in the present tense, and though in some instances I have found this detracts from the writing, turning a novel into what feels too much like a narrated shooting script for a film, that is definitely not the case here.
Malerman's claustrophobic world, where all windows must be entirely covered all of the time, and where any forays outside are only possible in total blindness is picked out in sharp and exacting detail, from the sounds of moving leaves and creaking floorboards to the smell of musty air in enclosed houses. The rhythm is tense and hypnotic, and Malerman uses every trick to ramp up the tension from beginning to end. In particular I like the fact that since you know Malorie is alone at the start of the novel, during the time with her housemates that makes up most of her flashbacks you are always wondering, at every new scrape of footsteps or rustle of wind whether this is the moment when things go wrong. With some authors, this technique could quickly have become repetitive, presenting simply a process of scary noises and forcing you to wait for the payoff, however Malerman's ability to have the story turn from disturbing to terrifying in a heartbeat and his use of a very intimate in character perspective keeps things always on the edge of horror.
If this wasn't enough, Malorie spends most of the book pregnant, and even though you obviously know she has the baby, Malerman conveys the sense of desperate urgency along with some of Malorie's experiences of pregnancy in particular detail, teasing out every second of tension and worry from the situation that he can. Again, in the hands of a less competent stylist this might have read like a litany of complaints, but Malerman's touch here is just right, from Malorie's fears of giving birth surrounded by untrained civilians with no resources available, to her cramps, nausea and muscle spasms.
My major problem with the book however, is that far too often the plot feels incredibly contrived. It is fairly clear that Malerman's initial idea was of the survivors living in the house together. However, how he gets there and the circumstances surrounding the main collapse of society are almost cursory, or at least all too convenient. Malerman begins with Malorie living with her sister, watching news reports and reading blogs on the internet of increasing outbreaks of suicidal madness and the belief that seeing something triggers it. He takes pains to point out people's isolation, yet never addresses why social media isn't used to connect people more either with each other or with authority.
His one mention of centralized action is a curfew started by the government, but he never addresses why, if blindfolds are all that are required to keep people safe more people don't simply take precautions, especially in a world of talking satellite navigation systems and many useful aids and devices already used by blind people to get around without vision. Indeed Malerman's lack of research on how people in the real world navigate without sight was quite evident since he occasionally refers to "blind people's walking sticks", rather than using the correct terms such as "long cane" and also has people flail around with these rather uselessly as opposed to use them in a structured manner as is required in reality.
When Malorie reaches the house she finds that the land lines are still operational (a plot point used several times), but the internet is completely out - Malerman's tossed off explanation that this is due to people not working in transmission towers is hardly adequate (I'm using the net through a land line right now). Similarly, he imagines the housemates having electricity due to a hydro electric station but using a well behind the house (again a frequently used plot point) for all their drinking water, when however the question of contaminated water is raised nobody suggests boiling it, indeed nobody seems to drink any hot drinks at all. The house has electricity, yet despite Malerman's atmospheric play on the fact that natural colours and sky are impossible to see in the new world, nobody ever thinks to watch a film, although a video camera is definitely mentioned.
These inconsistencies, major and minor keep occurring all through the book. Pet dogs can apparently be trained to be guide dogs in a couple of days, the housemate's frequently use candles even though they are supposed to have a working electricity supply, one character tells a story that implicates himself when he could've easily have told a more obvious lie, while another uses a steak hammered into the grass to mark the location of their house and supposedly find it while blindfolded, without addressing exactly how he will find the steak. Indeed while Malerman deals admirably and atmospherically with the problems of identifying sounds without vision, frequently characters will gain the ability to instantly and quickly walk from place to place without trouble while blindfolded when the book requires it even though at other times they struggle badly.
The most glaring inconsistency of all is that to do with character, since once Malerman has shoe horned Malorie into the house, a house populated by several women and men all in their twenties, character development and relationships are all based only on opposition. Nobody forms a couple (something which I'd naturally expect to happen in such a tense situation and which some other apocalypse survival fiction uses to great effect), or even particular friendships, all strife is based entirely upon group opinions and large scale divisions. Indeed, often the characters seemed more defined by their overall rolls within the group than what Malorie herself actually thinks of them, from the innovative forward thinking leader, to the dour sceptic and the timid follower. Malorie herself also shows remarkable inconsistency in her motivations and background, moving from competent, to traumatized, to devoted to her housemates simply as the plot requires. All such feelings are handled with Malerman's wonderfully written immediacy however I never particularly got much of a sense of who Malorie was as a person generally. All we know of her life before the apocalypse is that she's in her twenties, lives with her sister, has no job, and at one point had a one night stand with a man whose name is mentioned only once in the book and who Malorie seems to barely think of at all despite the fact she's determined to have the child that is partly his.
I really do not like playing the consistency police, fantasy literature should stand on its own merits and a book like Bird Box, with such a supreme atmosphere and so subtly and deftly told should rise above such concerns, however the basic narrative and world inconsistencies continually took me out of the plot, and I too often found myself thinking "Hey why don't you do so and so", or "That doesn't make sense" rather than being absorbed into the spell of breathless horror that Malerman was attempting to weave. This also occurred with the book's ending, since while the final climaxes of both Malorie's river journey and her time in the house were deeply satisfying, disturbing and mysterious (I always admire an author who knows when not to give answers), the final solution and the "safety" Malorie discovers again had me scratching my head at certain aspects of logic rather than sharing in Malorie's relief.
I really want to like Bird Box. There is such a lot of good about the novel in its style and the story that plainly Malerman desired to tell, the dark fraught tale of a woman's trip up river with two traumatized children and her memories of a group of people rattling around in an ever dim, enclosed house.
The problem is that Malerman suffers badly from what could be called Diabolus ex Machina, using contrived situations and conveniently bending the world to place his characters in the dire situation he obviously wishes to convey. Like it's more commonly divine counterpart, Diabolus ex machina really took me out of the novel, which was a real shame since there was such a lot of good, or at least such a lot of properly executed, well drawn nastiness!
At its best, Bird Box will have you hanging on tenterhooks jumping at every squeak of floorboards and gust of wind. At its worst, Bird Box will snap you back to reality with a serious hit to your credulity. Likely how much you enjoy the book will depend upon how much you can appreciate the one or disregard the other.
This Bird Box book review was written by Dark
Have you read Bird Box?
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Bird Box reader reviews
Toni from England
Amazing! Could not put it down. The suspense was perfect and loved all the characters. I'm not a literary genius or intellect but I've read a lot of Stephen King's books and this definitely felt fresh and exciting compared. I also read Black Mad Wheel by Malerman but didn't grip me the same.
Sherry from USA
Just finished reading Bird Box and thought it was a great read. The concept and conflicts are intriguing, but, for me, it was the characters, Malorie, Tom, and the 'Boy's and the 'Girl' and held my interest. The children were amazing and deserve a story line of their own, in the future. Well done.
Gabrielle from Australia
It is a very suspenseful book you can have nightmares from it but it was and is an amazing book. I would read it if u like horror, thriller.
Anon from US
Hi Dark, all I want to add is regarding the "steak". really??? I agreed with your review up until then. Now I'm picturing a piece af expensive raw meat lying there on the grass where the stake is supposed to be planted. Face palm.
Maurice from USA
When I finished the book, I was really surprised to find that the book had an editor, much less an agent. Frequently throughout the story, Malerman spood feeds, nay force feeds the story through exposition rather than simply showing us the action in situ. I realize that some of this, is a consequence of the flashback narrative, but that doesn't excuse it completely, as the book sometimes chooses to play out past scenes as though they were actually happening. It's amateurish, and I had to double check the price to make sure I didn't buy a self-published book, which I would have reviewed more gently. Editors are expensive, but given that I paid the same for this I have for books by Jim Butcher, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman I considered a waste of time and money.
Anon from US
Despite the inconsistencies, I very much enjoyed this book. Honestly, the atmosphere the book surrounds it's self in was enough for me to overlook some of the more bizarre choices the characters made. I read it all in one tense sitting, and I suggest you do the same.
Jonathan from United States
Unlike the reviewer I wasn't ripped out of the story by the inconsistencies. It was only after I finished that I began to consider them. The story kept me riveted from start to finish, reading it over two days. Makermans abikury to keep the tension ratcheted up to 11 didn't leave time for contemplation. I'll be reading more of Lerman's work.
Hannah from UK
Kept me enticed and I would definitely say it is a page turner. However, myself and a friend would have liked to have found out what the mystery 'creatures' were. Ending was a bit of a let down.
Michelle from USA
Very silly waste of my time... inconsistencies have already been pointed out... if this is fantasy novel, no me gusta...
Susan from UK
Absolutely loved it, sat up till 3.40am when I was due at work at 8.30am - couldn't put it down. Can't wait for his next book
7.3/10 from 11 reviews
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