My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The amazing thing about good literature is you can write about anything and make people believe in it. A terrible epidemic strikes the US and renders the sound of children’s speech lethal? Check. This was the premise of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman has no less bizarre a premise: an unspecified apocalypse has struck the world, whereby people are forced to huddle in their homes and not venture outside without blindfolds, or they go mad and kill themselves and anyone in the immediate vicinity.
Usually in the throes of horrible despair; there are some highly effective set pieces in this regard, with one particularly brutal and heart rending incident involving a dog.
There is also a transcendental scene near the end where one victim opens her eyes and is overcome with the awe and beauty of what she sees … the reader is left wondering if it is simply the ordinary world that dazzles her after her long period of self imposed blindness, or is it the grandeur and majesty of the apocalypse itself afflicting the world?
I think Malerman makes a fatal and irretrievable mistake early on in his novel by referring to some kind of trans-dimensional or alien ‘creatures’ as the root cause of his apocalypse.
I immediately began to think of everything from Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening and Whitley Streiber’s The Greys and Blindness by José Saramago. This inter-texuality siphons off much of the potency of Malerman’s premise and developing narrative.
Another mistake is the ending. I would simply have swopped the last two chapters around, for the simple fact that the actual ending reads rather flat and forced after the terror and horror that has gone before. The sudden injection of hope and surcease into this bleak nightmare just seems too much like a placebo. If only Malerman had had the balls to end the book at the exact point where Malorie thinks she is finally safe and has saved her children, and opens her eyes …
Having said all this, there is much to admire in this brave, unflinching and generally well written novel. I particularly liked the way that Malerman weaves two different narratives together: we start with Malorie holed up in a house, its windows and doors blocked with blackout material and wood, desperately trying to raise her boy and girl (they are simply called Boy and Girl, perhaps in homage to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).
She has been doing this for four years. (Exactly why the children have to keep their eyes closed when they wake up inside the house itself is never made clear, as the house is supposed to be a ‘safe zone’. This is an example of some of the niggling logical inconsistencies that bothered me).
There are mysterious, old blood stains on the walls and also scattered throughout the house. Malorie then decides that the time has come to venture out in a boat on the river behind the house in order to try and reach a place of sanctuary she has heard about. This journey is contrasted with the story of how she came to the house originally, what happened up to the point when her children were born, and the precise origin of all that spilled blood.
I would have liked to have learned more about the character of Gary, who is an outcast invited into the house as Malorie is, but who quickly begins to spread dissent and discontent. It would have been interesting if Malerman had included lengthier extracts from Frank’s journal, for example, or used Gary as an alternative point of view character. The view of the apocalypse presented here is just a touch too parochial and limited in order to achieve the kind of epic grimness of The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell, for example.
Writing a High Concept horror novel like this is always a fine balancing act between incredulity and suspension of disbelief. Much of the horror and terror here is inferred; Bird Box is very much a ‘modern’ take on the logical extremes of existentialism.
This is also a brave choice given the surfeit of twinkly vampire and cosy apocalypse fiction that so dominates the horror/dystopian genre at the moment, which not only means that readers have perhaps become lazy, but that they do not exercise their imaginations anymore and are unwilling to experiment with or diversify their staple reading to boot.
I think that readers in general will have a lot of varied opinions and theories about this novel. That Malerman is able to generate so strong a debate with such an intriguing novel shows he is an author to watch.