PopCult Book Club Review: March 2017 – Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman
(Ecco, 2014)

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The day society collapses Malorie learns she is pregnant. No one can say why everything has fallen apart, but there are some theories. The most prevalent are that the people who have gone murderous and crazed saw something, creatures or entities, that broke their minds. By the time Malorie heads to the safe house in Detroit people are boarding up their windows and only going outside equipped with blindfolds. Humanity is slipping into darkness. Josh Malerman’s debut novel jumps between Malorie’s pregnancy in the safe house to her blind journey down a river with her equally blinded children. She’s been told that somewhere down the river lies a place where the three of them can be safe. But is something stalking them on the shore?

Bird Box gets a lot of things right. First, it builds tension incredibly well. The concept of something you see, possibly even from the corner of your eye and can drive you to a homicidal rage is terrifying. The book introduces the apocalypse in the background, just a few strange piecemeal stories out of rural Russia. Then more and more incidents are reported until everything has crumbled. It also hits Malorie personally as early on she comes across a loved one who has seen whatever is causing this mental break. Malerman’s smartly leaves the exact nature of what is going a mystery. Characters wildly speculating is much scarier than the book spelling out what is happening outside the doors of the safehouse.

By building a paranoid tension, the author also develops his characters based on how they react to their circumstances. This is an excellent way to let your readers quickly get to know Malorie and the six or so supporting figures around her. As soon as she arrives at the safe house, we are aware who these people are right away. We see who is keeping a level head and trying to come up with workable solutions. We are aware who is petrified with fear about the change. We see who is quick to anger and irritation. I’m not a huge fan of The Walking Dead television series, but I do think Bird Box treads similar ground in its focus on ensemble character interaction. Malerman juxtaposes Malorie against another pregnant survivor. The house’s de facto leader Tom is mirrored and contrasted by a couple of other characters, one of whom comes late the story and could be considered the antagonist of the novel.

There is also something to be said for how smart it is to handicap your characters with the apocalypse, and then on top of that take away their chief sense. Malorie’s blindfolded odyssey out to a local bar to gather supplies is a grippingly tense sequence. Everything takes longer to do, and these stretched out moments allow us to immerse ourselves in the scene. We know as much as Malorie knows. When she discovers the trapdoor in the floor and the subsequent stench of horror that comes from it, we receive the same sensory input she does. This particular mode of information delivery is at it’s best during the journey down the river. Malorie has spent four years adapting herself and her children to the world without sight. As their boat floats down the waters, every sound is a potential threat. A brief encounter with another human on their trip is paranoid and suspenseful. Everyone is a danger, and she begins to speculate about the creatures and if they can now mimic human speech.

Overall, Bird Box is a very breezy exciting read. I wouldn’t place it up there with the type of horror I treasure, but it is a read very worthy of your time. I guarantee it will keep you glued due to his narrative momentum. When the horrific finale in the safe house finally comes about in the last two dozen pages, you’ll not be able to stop until you find out how it concludes. When Malorie and the children are within hearing distance of the new haven, her paranoia will overtake you, and you won’t be sure if they will make it.

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