There’s a lot of buzz about this book at the moment. I bought it a while ago, and it had been waiting patiently on my TBR pile. Then the Netflix film hit, and before I had the chance to read it, my husband had put it on TV. Slightly miffed that I hadn’t got to read it first, I gave in, because it just looked so good. I had also listened to the director, Susanne Bier, talking about it on Women’s hour on Radio 4 the previous week, and found what she said about it fascinating.
I loved the film, despite finding it stressful and frightening. Putting all else aside, I decided to read the book next.
The book is different, as you’d expect. Worse things happen. The film is faithful to the story, with obvious artistic license. When I had read it, I realised how well the casting had been done, for a start. Sandra Bullock has got the character of Malorie down to a tee. She is incredible in this role.
The book then, starts in the most recent period of the story, where Malorie is facing the awful decision to leave the house where she and her two very young children have been for over four years. They must do so blindfolded, and we are struck immediately by the bleakness of their situation and the peril in which she has to put them all to try to escape it. They must somehow negotiate a 20-mile trip down the river, relying only on their hearing in order to navigate it. They believe that someone can help them at the end of this journey, if they make it.
We move interchangeably from the time immediately prior to the collapse of society, where Malorie and her sister, Shannon, are living in a flat together, just starting to notice news reports of unexplained mass suicides in areas of Russia and Europe, to the time where Malorie lives with a group of survivors, and then the journey down the river alone with the children.
During the week where Malorie discovers she is pregnant, following a brief fling, the news that the suicides have come to the USA, and the rumour that it is something that people are seeing, creatures maybe, causing it, leads Shannon to put blankets over the windows and start to block out the outside world. There is no going back from this darkness throughout the vast majority of this novel. The sisters live like this for three months, eating everything they have in the house without leaving it, watching the breaking news which becomes increasingly despondent.
People flood to social media over everything now. I don’t think an apocalyptic event would stop that in the first days, but it doesn’t explicitly happen here. The author is a young guy; I don’t think he would ignore this without purpose, so I guess it was a choice to leave it out. It’s actually scarier without, somehow. As though the emerging situation was of such horror and fear, that people just couldn’t bear to talk about it between themselves. Malorie follows blogs, and reads theories online, but there is no mass hysteria in the way that social media would generate.
Then, the worst happens. Malorie finds her sister dead, and it’s horrific. The blanket had fallen a little from an upstairs window. There is no doubt that there is something outside, and that it’s causing rational people to lose their minds. I can honestly say that I don’t think there is a more chilling premise for a story out there. This situation must come close to the absolute worst thing you can think of. Josh Malerman’s mind is a dark and brilliant place.
Malorie has seen an advert for a place she can go, where other survivors are. Somehow, she drives there with her eyes mostly closed, seeing sinister movement in her peripheral vision. She then begins a prolonged and tense cohabitation with strangers who have survived. The owner of the house, who placed the advert is already dead.
If you have ever cohabitated with other adults before, it’s difficult. Personality clashes, falling out, the peacemakers, the confronters, positive outlook people, negative Noras.
The dynamics are altered here because of the situation; everyone has lost every other person close to them, but the undertones of cohabitation begin to come through, as there is no escape from each other. There is incredible pressure on resources. Malorie and Olympia are the two pregnant women in the house, each with their own huge anxieties about what will happen during and after the birth of their children in this terrifying, claustrophobic, blind world. Tom is the housemate (at the risk of going all Big Brother) who Malorie knows she can rely on, but he is the innovator, the solutions guy, who goes outside to try to find things to help them survive. On one journey, he finds some birds, who are put outside in a box as an alert system. The birdbox outside, resembles the birdbox inside, all trapped.
It turns Sylvia Plath’s bell jar of suicidal thoughts on its head; Malerman’s birdbox is the only prevention from it, although both are suffocating and claustrophobic.
I like how the author gets across the division between what are considered ‘old world fears’, like fear of the dark, fear of basements and attics, and the ‘old world’ problems. The new world is ONLY fear, and nothing else, apart from perhaps, the remotest glint of hope. This is not hope of defeating what’s out there. Malorie’s only desire is to get her children somewhere where they won’t starve, they can take off their blindfolds, and to let them have a taste of a childhood.
Disaster strikes the house eventually, and devastatingly, Malorie is left alone. She is resourceful and determined though, a meticulous planner.
One of the central themes of this novel is motherhood, and to what lengths Malorie forces herself for the children to survive. It’s impossible to fathom what it must be like to think or do the things Malorie does. It’s against instinct. The children are completely compliant with her and are unfailingly obedient. They have learned how to hear and identify sequences of up to forty of the minutest individual sounds. They are only called Boy and Girl, a reflection of Malorie’s reluctance to be attached to them, when she has lost everyone else. She has spent four years training them to make this journey.
If you can follow the journey down the river with Malorie and the children without suffering palpitations, I admire you. It’s just the worst thing. The capability and resilience that children can have in desperate situations is captured so poignantly. Josh Malerman’s ability to describe hearing without seeing in the most hostile world imaginable is terrific.
It is just a happy coincidence that they lived so close to the river in the first place! There are some questions, but I’m not sure they really matter. It’s a cracking book. If you’ve enjoyed the film, the book, I’m sure won’t disappoint you, and likewise, the film won’t let fans of the book down.