Short Take: What a nasty little treat this was.
This book was recommended to me by a friend who apparently knows me better than I know myself. I don’t usually read speculative fiction, as I generally like my trash a little more grounded in reality, which is to say, even the horrors of the night won’t keep us all away from Facebook. As such, post-apocalyptic stuff usually doesn’t interest me. I mean, there are only so many ways to tell the story of “we have to rebuild civilization while protecting ourselves from whatever destroyed it”, right?
Bird Box is the same, but catchier. It opens with a woman named Malorie waking up and deciding that today is the day she will row twenty miles down a river, blindfolded, with her two young children, to try to reach other survivors. And that’s when I said “wait, hold up. Twenty miles to where? Why blindfolded? Survivors of what?” And just like that, Josh Malerman got me.
It all begins five years before, in the present day, somewhere in Russia. A couple of guys are in a car, the passenger asks the driver to pull over, then viciously and gruesomely murders him and kills himself. It’s a weird anomaly, like the guy who ate the other guy’s face in Florida a while back. Normally, a story like that would hit the news, then fade. But before long, there are many more such stories that all end the same way – with the perpetrator killing themselves before anyone can find out why. And as the events spread to the US, there are more and more paranoid theories, and fewer and fewer people to repeat them. The only constant is that the people who have been driven mad have opened their eyes outside.
Malorie has just found out she is pregnant when she loses her sister, parents, and everyone else she has known. She finds a house with a few other survivors, and the grim vigil begins.
The only way to describe Bird Box is as a whirlpool. We see Malorie of today, blindfolded with two small blindfolded children, navigating a river by sound alone, then we circle back to the house where she waits to give birth, then back to today. With every loop, the pace of the story picks up, and we are drawn more and more quickly to the center, the horrific night that the babies are born, and the fate of the others who were in the house. Simultaneously, there are fresh nightmares on the river in a number of flavors, including the creatures that have nearly destroyed humanity, a bad guy of the human variety, and even wolves.
Bird Box was short and nasty in the best way. It’s like jalapeno fudge. It doesn’t sound that good, really. As I said, speculative, post-apocalyptic works usually turn me off. But hey, I do love chocolate, so I decided to try a bite. It was sweet and smooth, then BAM the heat kicked in. Totally different from what I usually enjoy, an unexpected jolt, but delicious nonetheless.
The babies added a deeper level of emotion to the narrative. The fear and tension were unrelenting in both storylines, but seeing what Malorie went through to keep the little ones safe threw an element of heartbreak into the mix. It was actually harder for me to read how she trained them to always keep their eyes shut than to read the graphic murder/suicide passages.
The prose is not poetic, but smooth, not descriptive, more statement of fact. I will admit, I initially wanted more description. I think I was spoiled by The Stand (uncut version) where every nuance of the End of the World was spelled out in excruciating detail. With Bird Box, there’s just one word – creatures – and we are left knowing exactly what Malorie knows, which isn’t much at all.
In the end, it’s that leanness that is Bird Box’s strength and weakness. You’re thrown from one time period and situation to another, all of them breathlessly tense, until the final few pages. There’s no nice neat bow tying everything up. There’s no awkward explanation shoe-horned in. It’s less about the how and why, and more about the “now what?”.
Malerman’s stripped-down prose is a perfect way to drive the narrative, but it doesn’t work as well when it comes to characters other than Malorie. Tom is the generic Calm Wise Leader. The other women are just… there, and with the exception of the bad guy(s) (no spoilers here!) the rest of men are interchangeable. We got a few sentences of backstory for some of them, but there isn’t enough to differentiate them from each other, or to generate any real emotion for the ones that are lost.
Overall, Bird Box’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and I look forward to seeing what Josh Malerman does in the future.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS
Currently Reading/Next Review: That Night, by Chevy Stevens