Bryan Alexander's Reviews > Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman
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's review
Dec 30, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: gothic, postapocalypse

I read this as part of my October horror novel reading project. It's also part of my quest to find the best scary novels of the 21st century.

Bird Box surprised me, and I mean that in a good way.

To begin with, it's both horror and post-apocalypse. It takes place after a terrible... something has clobbered the human race. A mysterious force, or creature, or disturbance has appeared and has a singular, terrible effect: glimpsing the thing causes people to kill themselves. The basic act of sight is now deadly. Much of humanity has perished, and the few survivors hunker down in sealed-off enclosures, only venturing outside with blindfolds. So that's an intriguing concept.

It also surprised me with its lack of gore. The overwhelming majority of Bird Box's scares are, literally, out of sight. Sounds, touches, rumors constitute the fright, and work very powerfully. It's like Don't Look Now, but with the narrator and reader trapped in the blind person's head. It reminds me of Saramago's very great Blindness (1995), but with a much narrower focus.

I'm impressed by the novel's narrow focus and very light touch. Malerman doesn't give us much description, which is appropriate, given the problem of vision. Nor does he delve deeply into minds and mores with long meditative paragraphs, like Saramago does. Bird Box is about suggestion, glances, very small moments. It's about the terror of hearing a whisper when there should be silence, the horror of a gentle touch on your shoulder when you knew you were alone.

Bird Box is structured along two parallel narrative tracks. One takes place years after the disaster, and follows Malorie, our protagonist, as she sets off across country to find a cherished goal. She brings her two very young children with her, neither possessing a name, nor have they actually seen the outside world, having been born after the apocalypse. The other narrative starts with the catastrophe's advent, which occurs at the same time as the course of Malorie's pregnancy. This backstory fills out the present-day story very nicely.

The present narrative is a river journey, which is very impressive. It clearly engages with Twain, as the trip riffs on what America has become on all levels. We get heroism, depravity, fidelity, nature both vicious and sweet. The river is both escape and would-be homecoming. It's also an adventure in Bird Box, not because of slavery, but because none of the travelers can see!

Let me dive into spoiler territory to dig into the plot a bit. (view spoiler)

So why not five stars? To begin with, Malerman is engaging with Saramago, and while I am impressed by that ambition, the latter was writing at the height of his powers after a lifetime of work, while this is the former's first published novel. So Blindness just plumbs humanity far more deeply than does Bird Box. The latter is a thriller, offering glimpses only of humanity. It's a massively unfair comparison, but one that makes sense - and also shows the way forward for Malerman's future writing.

As a post-apocalypse novel, I was disappointed in the lack of big picture details. My preference is to learn as much as possible about how we react to a devastation: politically, socially, religiously, militarily, academically, all of it. I appreciate the benefits of a narrow-lensed approach, but still want more. Bird Box doesn't say much about our time, and that's something we should expect from apocalyptic stories.

That said, there's so much to love in Bird Box. So many frights, so much tension. The scenes of the well and the attic. The title's meaning. Passages like this:
Malorie remembers thinking she'd have to catch every beast on the planet and bring it home for the children to know what they looked like. What else might they like if given the chance to view it? What would the Girl think of a fox? A raccoon? Even cars were a myth, with only Malorie's amateur drawings as reference. Boots, bushes, gardens, storefronts, buildings, streets, and stars. Why, she would have had to re-create the globe for them. But the best they got was fish. And the Boy loved them. [Kindle location 294]

Bird Box is definitely doing well in my best 21st-century horror novel competition.
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Reading Progress

December 30, 2014 – Shelved
December 30, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
October 18, 2015 – Started Reading
October 24, 2015 – Shelved as: gothic
October 24, 2015 – Shelved as: postapocalypse
October 24, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Saramin Let me know what you think of it.

Bryan Alexander Saramin wrote: "Let me know what you think of it."
Opening chapter is a real tour de force.
What did you make of it?

Saramin Yah, absolutely riveting first chapter. The rest of the book somewhat dipped below, then peered upwards again for the final few chapters (kind of knew what was coming though).

There's a new movie out called "The Room" which totally reminds me of this book in a way.

Bryan Alexander Saramin wrote: "Yah, absolutely riveting first chapter. The rest of the book somewhat dipped below, then peered upwards again for the final few chapters (kind of knew what was coming though).

There's a new movie..."

Good to know. Thank you.

I haven't read Donoghue's novel, but heard good things.

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