Most people dismissed the reports on the news. But they became too frequent; they became too real. And soon it was happening to people we knew.
Then the Internet died. The televisions and radios went silent. The phones stopped ringing.
And we couldn't look outside anymore.
I saw a lot about Bird Box around its release, bought it in a Kindle sale at some point and then forgot that I even owned it. Then one morning, I woke up early and couldn't read my current physical book because it was dark and I'm kind enough that I didn't want to bash on a lamp while Boyfriend was sleeping. So I picked up my Kindle, flicked through the many books on there and went for this, drawn back in by the cover tagline "If you've seen them, it's already too late".
I wanted a thriller but I was very ill-prepared for just how dark this book was going to be. Well, I suppose less how dark it was going to be than how gruesome. The premise is fairly simple: the world is under threat from some being that, when seen by humans, makes those humans kill those around them before ultimately killing themselves. The narrative is split between two main threads: one in the present where Malorie is alone in a house struggling to survive with two children, unable to go outside but desperate to brave it in the hope that she'll be able to find some kind of life for her little family and one in the past that starts with news reports of the phenomenon and Malorie finding out that she's pregnant and shows the world gradually unravelling from there.
I think what makes this book different from other dystopian fiction is that readers never find out exactly what is causing the implosion of the human race. There are theories about what it is (including a fascinating one that there is in fact nothing at all causing the deaths other than mass hysteria and delusion) but, given that everybody who has seen it has died, nothing concrete. It's one of those stories that relies on readers' imaginations to fill the gaps about what terrifying vision might be stalking the streets. And my goodness does it work. There are moments where characters are blindfolded and fetching water or something from outside and they're plagued by images of what might be lurking just beyond their blindfold and the terror as they start to imagine something touching them and gradually descend into panic feels so real. It perfectly conveys that feeling when you walk into a pitch black room and have that fleeting "But what if…?" thought and suddenly have to get a light on.
The novel also manages to touch on the social impact of strangers being forced to rely on each other to survive, the plight of being torn between the desire to help save others and saving yourself and it all feels very (worryingly) realistic. The ending isn't exactly definitive but it worked for me and even while it introduced a whole host of new moral quandaries, it did wrap up the story enough and didn't feel as though Malerman had just got bored and stopped writing.
I really, really liked this book. It was terrifying and it was brutal but it was completely gripping. I like stories that are told through flashbacks and this one uses the technique particularly well. You know what's coming (in a way) but I was still completely astonished when it came to the point of actually getting there. Bird Box won't be for everyone because it doesn't shy away from some very raw and gory details of people's demises (particular warning to those who especially don't want to read about violence/death of animals). There was a scene in particular towards the end that really freaked me out and that made me feel physically ill so even if it's by no means a pleasant read, it is a hell of a gut-punching one.
Overall: With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that I'd definitely recommend Josh Malerman's debut. While I was reading it, I alternated between fervent hope for characters, disgust and all sorts of other over-wrought emotional states. It was a trying time but one I'd say is worth inflicting on yourself. It actually looks as though HarperCollins will be publishing Malerman's second novel, Black Mad Wheel, later this year and I'll definitely be picking up a copy when it's out.
Date finished: 14 January 2017
Genre: Dystopian fiction; thriller
Pictured Edition Published: in January 2015 by HarperCollins Publishers
Buy your own copy (affiliate links): Amazon | Wordery