I will admit, on starting this book, I half expected to give up in despair of a feasible plot. As a piece of concept apocalyptic fiction, the first test Bird Box has to pass is the “Willing Suspension of Disbelief.” I’m willing to stretch my own limits pretty far . . . after all, I’ve willingly run along with zombies of all nature, genetically engineered vampires, alien invasion, and so on. I do ask that the author give me some logical framework to hang on to, and I am pleasantly surprised to report that Malerman largely accomplishes this. I wasn’t always completely convinced that the characters would actually be able to perform the tasks they were given, but those gaps were small and far between.
Malerman does a very nice job creating a descriptive narrative that relies on all the minor senses and excludes the all-important sight. He gets a lot of mileage out of the finite visual setting that he allows himself, while at the same time bringing the audience along on a journey through unknown physical territory with one hand effectively tied behind his back.
There were a couple of plot details that I found especially captivating. MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. Two of the characters are young children, born after the initial events of the apocalypse. The consideration of how to bring up children in a sightless world, in which the parent is effectively creating a constant state of involuntary blindness, was both fascinating and creepy. Also, Malerman never explains the nature of the threat. It’s eventually understood that there are “creatures” that somehow trigger a state of insane violence in humans when they are seen, but neither the origin nor motivations of these creatures is ever understood. I found this a refreshing and realistic change to a genre sometimes overrun by an excess of detail.
We primarily follow the story of Malorie, a young, pregnant girl attempting to find other survivors. We are also introduced to a small society of survivors living together in small, suburban house. While some individual characters are nicely developed, I found the general social dynamic in this house to be vague and lacking in vital details. Over the time we spend with this group, there is little explained in the way of organization, decision making, or planning for simple social scenarios that all begged for some kind of acknowledgement. For example, the group is confronted on several occasions with outsiders trying to join the house, but no apparent plan for dealing with this is attempted. The need for food is constantly looming, but little to no discussion about how to obtain more food is presented.
Bird Box is successful largely due to Malerman’s skill in building and maintaining tension. The tension ramps up almost immediately and doesn’t relax, even back and forth through timeline shifts. The reader is left in the same precarious, uninformed position as the protagonists. The sense of claustrophobic fear for a world where everything outside of a very small sphere is unknowably threatening is pervasive and unrelenting.
The result of all this tension is a cabin fever scenario multiplied by infinity. The irony for our survivors is that all of their efforts to evade seeing the dangers around them may very likely bring about the thing they’re working so hard to avoid in the first place . . . insanity. How do you live blind-folded in a horror movie plot day after day after day? How do you create a viable, safe environment for future generations? What purpose is there for survival if the best one can hope for is a shuttered, never-changing existence haunted by constant threat of the unknown just over your shoulder?
Bird Box presents all of these questions and points us to answers out there somewhere . . . just out of sight.
Published by HarperCollins
Narrated by Cassandra Campbell
This was a wonderfully pleasant audiobook experience. Ms. Campbell’s narration was well paced, emotive without being overly dramatic, and conveyed the pervasive sense of tension without beating it over the listener’s head.
I’m interested to note that Ms. Campbell is the narrator for the audiobook version of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, as well member of the narration casts for Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. A nice resume for a solid performer.