Reviewing Josh Malerman’s Bird Box

Bird Box
By Josh Malerman
HarperCollins, 293 pp., $25.99.

Back in August, we profiled High Strung singer Josh Malerman due to the fact that his book, Bird Box, had earned him a six-figure multi-book deal from HarperCollins, and was going to be made into a movie. We wrote a cover story (a multi-award winning cover story, as it turns out) because a local success story like this warrants one. But we hadn’t actually read the book. Until now.

Back then, Malerman said, “Bird Box is essentially a young mother’s tale of raising two children in a macabre, shadowy and extremely dangerous world. You can’t look outside, you can hardly go outside, and a blindfold is your greatest protection. The book alternates between two key moments in [the mother] Malorie’s life: when she is pregnant and arrives at a house where other people are attempting to understand what has happened to the outside world, and when she is desperately traveling a river, blindfolded, with the two children. Where they are going, what they are leaving behind, and what they might encounter on the river makes up the meat of the story. The bird box is an alarm system that they use.”

That’s a strong starting point. Malerman didn’t want to give too much away, and neither do we. We’ll keep it simple. Bird Box is post-apocalyptic tale about a world where something is outside that turns people mad if they set eyes on it, resulting in murder and suicide. We never actually find out what it is, but there are hints to creatures and kaleidoscopic skies. To survive, people have to keep the windows covered up and, if they do venture outside, blindfolds on.

That’s the plot. To Malerman’s immense credit, he builds tension patiently and with a subtle hand. He’s a horror aficionado, and so he could have been forgiven for rushing headlong into the juicy bits. He doesn’t, instead holding us in those moments when the tension is at its tightest. He makes us ask questions of ourselves: how would you survive in a world filled with crazy people if you couldn’t keep a look out for them? What are we capable of doing when our survival is put at risk?

The book isn’t perfect. A story of people “turning” murderous – it could easily be a zombie tale if given a quick rewrite. One has to wonder why, in a world of mad people, the survivors aren’t faced with more, ummm, mad people. There are few occasions when the serenity of the house is disturbed, but for one chaotic scene. Outsiders don’t pound on the door. The crazies are quite polite.

But this is horror fiction, and suspension of disbelief is part of the deal. The “blind” element is very nice, and the fact that we don’t know what is causing the breakdown keeps us guessing. Above all, Malerman has proven himself to be a gifted writer, an intelligent horror author, who values genuine scares above all-out gore. The fact that Malerman is trying to be unique, to find a new monster, should be celebrated.

Bird Box is available from May 13.

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