Bird Box by Josh Malerman is a dark, tense, and touching story that is incredibly hypnotic. It’s the story of one woman, Malorie, and the lengths she’ll go to in order to keep her boy and girl alive. In a unique twist on the contemporary post-apocalyptic novel, Malerman has created a monster so horrible that merely looking at it will drive you violently insane. How do you adapt? How do you survive?
Malerman creates tension with scenes that are so heavy and rife with dark possibility, I found myself sweating. Not figuratively, but literally sweating, reaching for a napkin or sleeve to mop my brow. Whether taking an ill-advised trip to neighboring houses looking for supplies, giving birth as the world goes to hell, or even getting water out of the well, the intensity never lets up:
“He hears something. Again. It sounds like wood popping in the distance.
When Felix turns he accidentally knocks the bucket off the well’s lip. It falls in; the crank turns without him. The bucket crashes to the bottom. The loud echoes of metal against stone. Jules calls to him. Felis, turning around, feels incredibly vulnerable. Again, he does not know where the sound comes from. He listens, breathing hard. Learning against the cobblestones, he waits.
Wind rustles the leaves of the trees.
The story gets more intense from there on out. Imagine the scariest situation you can think of, and then put your protagonist not only in the dark, but blindfold her. Trusting, for no reason at all, that the danger is in looking, not just in being. An amorphous creature is floating in the air, possibly right beside you. Don’t look, don’t panic…DON’T OPEN YOUR EYES. Just keep going.
Hard to do.
So you’re alone, flashing back in time from the present, to the past—what could make your plight more dangerous and vulnerable? Yes, pregnancy, and then later, birth—the children. In both time periods, we see how much danger Malorie is in when pregnant, and later, with her trained children, who sleep in mesh wire cages, cloth draped over the top, having learned to wake up without opening their eyes. She hovers over the babies, ready to blind them so that in a future moment of weakness, they will never look, never open their eyes and go insane.
In the most terrifying novels and films, the danger, the beast is always at a distance, something out there—until the moment that it’s in here. When the violence finally follows you home, the great all-seeing eye of destiny alighting on you, and yours, tag—you’re it. When Gary, a neighbor, shows up on the doorstep, setting off the bird box alarm (a cage of cooing birds that alerts the dwellers to any new presence) there is trepidation and fear. Over time, Gary becomes part of the family, but never trusted by Malorie. And like a ticking time bomb, doesn’t it always go off?
In addition to the daily life and rituals of the survivors in the house, we jump forward in time to a trip down a river—Malorie has trained her children to listen so well that the tiniest details reveal themselves in the quiet. Down the river they go, one obstacle after another, banking on the long shot of an ending where they might find others, where they might be saved. The enemies on this journey are her fellow man, rabid animals, and the creatures of course, the ones that make you go violently crazy—and the worst thing she can do is get injured, hurt, and pass out.
A brief excerpt from their trip, which involves, of course, birds:
…the voices of the birds rise in a grotesque wave, nearly symphonic, shrieking.
It sounds like there are too many for the trees to hold.
Like they make up the entire sky.
They sound mad. They sound mad. Oh my God they sound mad.
Malorie turns her head over her shoulder again, though she cannot see. The Boy heard a voice. The birds are mad. Who follows them?
But it no longer feels like something is following them. It feels like that something has caught up.
What amazes me is that this is Malerman’s first novel, especially the ways he made me care about these people, the way he got through to me, off the page, and into my life out here in the real world, making it hard to breathe. Part I Am Legend, part The Road, this dark, anxious, and hauntingly original novel was one of my favorite books of the year.