Author: Josh Malerman
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: November 2018
I’m sure I’m only one of many who glance at the plot of this novel—about a possibly-creature-induced-calamity that causes survivors to keep their eyes closed (at least while outside) so as not to succumb to involuntary hyper-violence—and are instantly reminded of the recent movie hit A Quiet Place (which features a related idea about staying quiet so creatures don’t hear you). And sure enough, the movie for Bird Box will be out soon, one of the first that Netflix is choosing to release in theaters. Small victory for both media: the title is the evocative Bird Box instead of the tagline “Don’t Open Your Eyes.”
Josh Malerman delivers an impressive debut that is workmanlike in its steady progression toward its dual climaxes but also offers enough depth and humanity to avoid being just another page-turner (let’s say that it lands this side of the Dark Matter divide). Having the main character, Malorie, be pregnant at the start of the earlier timeline is a wise move. What could be more intense than pregnancy and birth, even without society falling apart? To have to go through it in an atmosphere of distrust among strangers, when you have to pull water from a well blindfolded and worry about the canned food running low in the cellar, is inherently terrifying.
An alternate timeline describes Malorie attempting to leave the house where her kids grew up and venture down the river toward salvation—just the three of them, still blindfolded against the mysterious danger. The morbid fun of the book is trying to decide which of the adventures is more spine-tingling: the modern one about the river escape or the past one about the impending birth and the disagreeing housemates? Parents may feel a sinking ache at imagining the time between: the four years when Malorie raised the kids alone in this broken world, with blankets over the windows and old bloodstains scattered throughout the house. The sickening part is how nature would relentlessly persuade you to try to survive. Another parent articulates to Malorie one of the strategical paradoxes of coaching a kid into such a world when he reminisces about his daughter: “Somehow, I had to make her believe things were safe and horribly unsafe at the same time.”
The book struck me as oddly effective on the days when I wasn’t all that excited to read it. Strangely, I would look forward to the more laborious Gormenghast, my bedtime book around the same time when Bird Box was for my daily bus rides. Part of it was due to the grim plotline about pregnancy under immensely stressful conditions. (Seriously, do not recommend this book to a pregnant woman.) There were a couple tired afternoons when I just didn’t know if I had the stomach for a post-apocalyptic struggle, but in the end I enjoyed the graceful resolution of the novel. I’ll decline to comment on the creatures for now, and I’m already skeptical of the movie’s choices. But hey, at least they might stay true to allowing the characters a moment to breathe and expand partway through their monster movie. Sometimes all it takes to remain memorable is the odd inclusion of a bird box.