Harper Voyager (harpervoyagerbooks.co.uk)
Malorie hasn’t seen outside the house where she lives with her two four-year-old children since six months before they were born. There are creatures outside, creatures who, if you look at them, will drive you into a murderous rage that will ultimately end in your own suicide. Following the death of her sister, Malorie follows a newspaper advertisement and finds herself in a house outside Detroit with a handful of strangers whose only plan is to survive. Four years later, Malorie is on her own with the children and makes a decision that will put their lives at risk. She is going to take them outside in an attempt to get them to a safer place. They must travel around twenty miles on the river and, if they are to survive, they must do so blindfolded, relying only on the children’s highly-trained sense of hearing to guide them and keep them safe.
As Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, opens we find ourselves in a version of our own world where something is not quite as it should be. We are introduced immediately to Malorie, as she makes the decision to pack up her children, and make a break for the river. There is a palpable sense of paranoia coming in waves off this young woman and we soon learn that in this empty house, all of the doors are locked, and all of the windows are covered in heavy drapes. Most shocking, perhaps, is the chicken-wire and black cheesecloth constructions that allow her to lock her children – Boy and Girl – in their beds at night, to prevent them from inadvertently looking outside. This fact, more than anything else that comes before or after, brings home the full extent of the danger these people face.
As Malorie leaves the house – she and the two children blindfolded – we watch, in flashbacks, as the world changes, from the initial “Russia Report”, to the rapid spread across the globe, which coincides with Malorie’s discovery that she is pregnant. Alternating chapters take us from Malorie’s flight along the river, to her arrival, almost five years earlier, at the house, the duration of her pregnancy, and the events that ultimately leave her alone, raising two children to the best of her ability under the circumstances. Rather than focusing on the breakdown of society, Malerman focuses on the microcosmic world of the inhabitants of the house: the mistrust of new people, and the initial tense welcome that Malorie receives when her saviours discover that she is pregnant, and the implications this is likely to have in a world where a scarcity of food is the least of their problems; the factions that form within the house when trouble breaks out; and the overriding fact that these people have a desire to survive, despite what is going on beyond the safety of their front door.
Malerman’s purpose in telling the tale is less in frightening the reader – although he succeeds admirably in this – but in examining how fear affects people, and how parenthood changes the game completely. This is Malorie’s story, and is an examination of the lengths to which she will go to protect her children. Everything she does, she does on blind faith, from stepping beyond the well – the furthest point she has gone from the house in four years – because Tom has told her that the river lies in that direction, to the trip along the river itself – the purpose of which we learn late in the novel, and the uncertainty of what lies at the end of her journey is at once shocking, yet entirely understandable: anything must be better than the situation in which she currently finds herself. It’s an age-old story of how far we will go to improve the lot of our children, and increase their chances of success or, in this case, survival.
At heart, this is an old-fashioned horror story, that has a lot in common (size not being on of those things) with Stephen King’s classic post-apocalypse novel, The Stand. The world as we know it has ended, but Malerman takes no time to examine the cause of this disaster. Bird Box is about people picking up the pieces, and trying to survive. What makes this world even more deadly than the post-Captain Trips-world of King’s 1978 novel is that there is no immunity: these people have survived partly out of pure luck, partly because they were smart enough to take note of what was happening and stop looking outside; but the threat lingers on, an ever-present danger that these people must continue to deal with in order to continue surviving. Because Malerman never breaks out of Malorie’s head, we have no idea what has actually caused this to happen. We hear the same theories that Malorie does and, in the intense birth scene, we catch a glimpse of something that verifies at least one of these theories, but we never actually see these “creatures” or understand their origins or objectives. This approach, like some of the best horror films where the threat rarely, if ever, appears directly on screen, makes this world all the more frightening for the reader. This works to Malerman’s advantage, particularly in Malorie’s journey along the river, where we are as blind as she is and are never quite sure if the noises she and her children are hearing are likely to be fatal or not, indigenous or alien.
Bird Box – the novel’s name comes from the ingenious alarm system that the housemates rig outside the front door to warn them of anyone approaching – takes an in-depth look at madness in its many forms, and the effects of isolation on the human mind. When we meet Malorie, she seems perfectly normal, but there are hints – the drive to move, the fact that her children don’t have names and answer to Boy and Girl, the paranoia – that she has been affected in ways that we, the reader, cannot possibly begin to imagine. Malerman’s masterstroke – a beautiful final touch – is the fact that there will not necessarily be a happily ever after. There is an element of ambiguity that the author leaves, quite rightly, open to the interpretation of the individual reader. I find myself thinking of those final few pages quite often, as I suspect many readers will when they reach the end of this extraordinary novel: sometimes I hope for the best; other times I can’t help but think the worst.
In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.