Friday, September 08, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

by Karen S. Wiesner

Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic horror thriller published in 2014. Most people know of the story because of the 2018 Netflix movie starring Sandra Bullock, something that is actually a very worthy adaptation of the novel. However, being a proponent of "the book is usually better than the movie", I had to read it before I watched it. Discovering that this was the debut novel of a singer/songwriter in the Detroit band The High Strung was a bit of a surprise to me. Josh Malerman wrote 14 novels between shows on the road with his band. A high school friend of his in the book business encouraged him to submit something, and the rest is history.

The main character in Bird Box is Malorie. The present story--4 years into the situation referred to as "The Problem"--is woven with flashbacks from two other time periods. The first is when Malorie discovers she's pregnant from a one-night stand. This happens alongside international news reports of people seeing some undefined creature outside that causes them to go mad, then kill others before killing themselves. The second time period is after Malorie is forced to leave the home she'd been living in with her sister in order to seek shelter with other survivors. One of the other women in the safe house is also about four months pregnant (a bit unbelievable, if I'm honest, especially when the two women go into labor almost exactly at the same time). While sequestered with all the windows covered, they discover they can use birds in a box as an alarm system in case anything comes near the house.

In the present, Malorie is alone, raising another woman's child and her own and not distinguishing one from the other in any way. In fact, the reader doesn't know for most of the story which one is her kid. In order to keep them save, she's used harsh training techniques (one being the use of a blindfold) that have heightened the senses of the four-year-olds. She refers to the children as only "Boy" and "Girl". When they have no choice but to seek out a refuge Malorie has heard of that has medical supplies, food, and safety, they venture out into the world again--blindfolded the entire time they travel, even while in a boat.

This is a very intense, suspenseful novel centered around an unlikely scenario that wouldn't have worked at all if it wasn't written as a character driven story. The plot would have fallen apart in a second if not for that, in large part because, as one reviewer said, "The reason for all the bloodshed is never explored or explained."

The main character's choices do prove to be problematic for me, as do some of the scenarios that stretched belief a little too far. First, the "harsh training techniques" give me pause. Malorie is only once shown to be physically abusive toward the children. Outside of that, she's just cold with them, withholding affection. I'm bothered by this because, of course, it makes no sense to me why someone would think that treating others poorly actually makes them physically safer. Maybe it selfishly makes Malorie emotionally safer because she's lost a lot and it would be hard for her to trust again after that. That would have been a better motivation for her than that she actually thought it made the children safer. Additionally, after four years raising these children completely alone--raising them from newborns--I find it 100% unrealistic that she wouldn't have developed a strong, loving, affectionate bond with them. She must have had to hold and feed (breastfeed, I'm sure) both of them. It would have been nearly impossible for her to separate herself from the tenderness a mother feels naturally doing that. Also, because she can't draw attention to herself, she must have had to soothe them both often to prevent excessive crying. But the other part that didn't strike me as realistic is how she managed to keep them safe all by herself for so long. She would have had to either leave them alone or bring them along to get supplies. How she did that was skirted over by telling instead of showing, so it didn't play a large part in the tale. But I found it more than a little unlikely.

Still, as a whole I bought the premise of Bird Box and went along with it because it really is a well done story. I was caught up with Malorie's life and the situation, regardless of the dubiousness of the minor moot points I mentioned earlier. Many times while I was reading the book and watching the movie, I thought it worked extremely well that the source of the horror wasn't revealed in more than fleeting glimpses. Often, when a shadowy corner has been brought into the light, we discover there's nothing to fear lurking in it. Instead of heightening the terror by seeing it fully, sighting it dissolves the tension. In this case, it was much better to almost see the monster through the cracks between our fingers--or, more aptly, in peeks stolen through the top or bottom of a blindfold. That puts the reader on a constant knife-edge of uncertainty.

Incidentally, while writing up this review, I discovered a sequel was released in 2021 called Malorie, which I'll be buying ASAP, and hopefully reviewing here sometime in the future. It sounds like with that follow-up, "the reason for all the bloodshed" is finally explored and explained. Additionally, a spin-off sequel called Bird Box Barcelona debuted on Netflix in July 2023. It doesn't star the same cast, though it has exactly the same premise as the previous movie, only with a male parent and his child searching for a refuge from The Problem. I do intend to watch that as well to see if it's any good.

Bird Box is a unique take on horror that should have readers not wanting to put the book down.

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Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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