Bird Box is a 2014 post-apocalyptic novel written by a fella called Josh Malerman. This was apparently his first novel and he’s better known, to those people who know about such things, as the lead singer in a band called “The High Strung”.
I’ve never head of “The High Strung” but after reading Bird Box I think I should probably get acquainted with them, if his debut novel is anything to go by then his lyrics must be worth paying attention to and might make The high Strung worth my time; even if I don’t consider music made post 1984 to be worth a great deal.
But, you know, I am a man of a “certain age” so I would think that.
Bird Box takes place after the death of the civilised world – so this would be post 1984 – and the human race isn’t extinct but its civilization, for all intents and purposes, is. Civilization didn’t die in a cataclysmic fireball; there were no flying saucers eradicating the white house or zombies roaming the streets. Human civilization didn’t go under such dramatic circumstances but rather, it kind of slipped away without people really noticing.
The reason why people didn’t notice is because they weren’t looking at the time.
No really, I mean it.
They weren’t looking because most of them had their eyes closed.
No, honestly, they did.
Bird Box presents us with a world where something, out there, is something we should not see, something we cannot see. If we see it, whatever it is, we go insane. We kill those closest to us and then drive a butter knife through our throats afterwards to close our eyes forever.
The survivors cover their windows and only venture outside when their eyes are suitably covered. They feel their way through a world which they share with…
Well, with something…
Something that is so monstrous it’s an assault on our very sanity.
This is the world through which our hero, Malorie, is leading two children. All of them rely on the sounds of the world around them; they can hear creatures scurrying through the undergrowth and howls of things that may be wild dogs, or perhaps something more. The most prominent sound they hear though is the river on which they travel; following a map Malorie has in her minds eye, a map that she hopes will lead them to safety.
The map isn’t the only thing Malorie sees in her minds eye, she also sees her past and those people she has lost to it. She sees her sister Shannon and the friends she made in the dark days after humanities fall, and we see it all with her.
Bird Box is told in disjointed flashbacks as the woman and her two children search without seeing along a river bordered by nightmares. We travel with them and watch as our comfortable world becomes their hopeless existence and we see as Malorie struggles to rebuild that hope in her and the children she leads.
Josh Malerman has created in this book a simple tale with surprising depth; his characters are heroic without being heroes, they are flawed creations which require the reader to make allowances for the world in which they live. Malorie, under any other circumstances would be considered a monster and she know it. Her treatment of the children would be but – as she is aware – how clear is her view of the world when her eyes are always closed?
Can she be so certain that the monsters are out there and not lurking behind the blindfold in her mind?
To the reader this is never a serious consideration but to Malorie it is. She is not so certain of her sanity or the sanity of those around her. She is all too aware that her terror leads her and terror and sanity are not easy bedfellows.
The dread that permeates Bird Box does not only come from the unseen creature that may – or may not – lurk outside, it also comes from the unravelling the few people who remain. As is often the case in such a story the true enemy is those with which you share your safety. Each additional survivor Malorie meets becomes a possible nightmare wrapped in the promise of protection and it becomes increasingly certain that at some point the person they open the door to might not have their best interests at heart.
Much of this we have seen before of course, anyone who is a fan of George Romero has seen it done many times, but Bird Box’s originality – or lack of – isn’t much of a concern when the reader is knee deep in its atmosphere. This is where the author shines. The book is written with an emphasis on sound and because of this is it rather lacking in visual description, and this Josh Malerman turns to his benefit. It is – after all – what we don’t see that frightens us and it is especially frightening to know that what we can’t see clearly sees us.
Bird Box was optioned as a movie before the novel was actually released, back in 2013, and it has moved through several hands to end up with Netflix. After reading the book I wonder if this is the right approach, but after saying that I know that on day of release I’ll be eagerly making my way home to view the results.
Josh Malerman has written about a half dozen novels, but at the time of writing this Bird Box was the only one easy to find online. Many of his other work seems to have been released in limited form so – unfortunately – it’s so far the only one I have read from him.
It won’t be though, it certainly won’t be.