Published by Ecco on May 13, 2014
Most people ignored the outrageous reports on the news. But they became too frequent, they became too real. And soon, they began happening down the street. Then the Internet died. The television and radio went silent. The phones stopped ringing. And we couldn't look outside anymore. Malorie raises the children the only way she can; indoors. The house is quiet. The doors are locked, the curtains are closed, mattresses are nailed over the windows. They are out there. She might let them in. The children sleep in the bedroom across the hall. Soon she will have to wake them. Soon she will have to blindfold them. Today they must leave the house. Today they will risk everything.
After two thoroughly disappointing ‘suspense’ novels, Birdbox was a welcome surprise that thoroughly delivered on the genre. This book was a thriller!
Birdbox begins with scattered reports of unusual incidents, where people are reported to have ‘seen something’, then suddenly fly into a mania where they kill themselves, and anyone else around them. Something out there, is causing these people to go mad, and once they have seen it, there is no going back. When the reports started, no one could have any idea that it would turn into such a pandemic, but soon, people everywhere are committing heinous acts of violence and mass suicides… all because they looked out the window, or ventured to open their eyes. It becomes unsafe to have open windows, or to venture outside without blindfolds. Whatever is out there, it is coming for everyone.
Birdbox is a different type of survival story, and a different concept of a post-apocalyptic world. I normally have absolutely no patience for survival books, but this was psychological survival in a world of the overwhelming unknown. This was not a post-apocalyptic wasteland that could be scavenged and defended, this is a world where any area beyond the threshold of your home door was completely beyond your ability to control or even to conceive.
Malorie, our main character, is attempting to train her children to survive without sight, so that at some point she can take them and escape the home where they live alone in the hopes of something better. These children, barely over four years old, must have every skill necessary for a world of complete blindness if they are to survive their journey, for once they leave the home, they will not for even a second be able to open their eyes. They have been trained to wake without opening their eyes, how to identify sounds and smells as their only way of communicating with the open world, and they are Malorie’s only hope for liberation. The remainder of the book is dedicated to the past, following the outbreak of madness, when the house was full of survivors. What Malorie teaches her children she initially learned from her comrades, although it will take her entire journey to full reminisce about why they are no longer with her.
It may seem ironic, but the greatest strength of this book is the unknown. There is no firm explanation or description given to the ‘creatures’ that are causing the onset madness, if they truly even exist at all. No information is given away quickly, and what is imparted on the reader is turbid and rife with suggestion. The absence of clarity encumbers the reader with their own active imagination, forcing them through vague implication to confront how they picture the indefinable horror in their own minds.
It drove me mad to conceptualize being completely incapable of seeing the world around me for anything – not to drive, not to move, not to hunt, or even to flee for my safety! The idea of stepping out of a secure door into complete oblivion, not knowing whether I was surrounded by danger or completely alone, was so deeply horrifying that it made me squirm. Not to mention the insatiable urge that every human being would have, just to peek, just once! Someone always peeks, (hello, Orpheus and Eurydice!) and to fight that instinctual urge to do just that would drive any person crazy! This left every page dripping in suspense.
The tension is not just well written by implying the unknown, because the tension between the characters exists as an undeniable force. As a reader, you are constantly just waiting for someone to peak. There is so much distrust between them, and there is inevitable cabin fever. There is a huge fear of what will happen with two pregnant women about to give birth, or when they run out of supplies or have a medical emergency. They are constantly faced with the reality that their small peace cannot possibly continue. Overall, there is such a gradual buildup of tension, but there are very few moments of lull. In such an atmosphere of constant tension, its nearly impossible for the plot to drag.
There isn’t a great deal to complain about in Birdbox. Sure, the main character isn’t likeable, but it works. I didn’t necessarily care about her survival, but she carried the plot through adequately. There were also a few moments where I absolutely could not reconcile the choices made by the characters. I couldn’t wrap my head around these actions as anything I would logically and rationally come to, so clearly the characters and I have very little natural similarities. Did it take away from the story? Not exactly. It was frustrating all the same.
Finally, though the ending is satisfying and positive, it still leaves much to be explained. Yes, the uncertainty and the unknown help make and drive this book, but I am definitely a reader who likes clear answers. Tell me, Josh Malerman, just what are you getting at? All the same, Birdbox broke the ‘Suspense and Thriller’ slump I was experiencing, and was a fantastic read.