‘Bird Box’ by Josh Malerman #bookbloggers #BirdBox #bookreview #amreading

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.

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste NG

Little Fires Everywhere

In my blog post, ‘The Thinning of the Veil’, I did somewhat commit to exclusively reading scary or bloodthirsty literature for the forthcoming weeks. In error though, I started with ‘The Woman in Black’, and thought perhaps I could have a little comfort break already with Celeste NG’s second novel, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. My friend Sarah did lend this to me a few weeks ago, so I did also think I should read and return it. So really, I’m not being a wimp; I’m being a responsible friend…

However, Little Fires Everywhere was not anything like a comfortable read. It’s a superb novel though. Matt Haig (of whom I am a big fan), described it as ‘a masterclass in characterisation’, and as usual, he’s dead right.

It starts with a postscript chapter, where we discover that a fire has been deliberately set in the Richardson family home, leaving this previously affluent family with the clothes on their backs and nothing much more. No-one has been hurt, but their youngest child, Izzy, has gone missing.

The book is set in Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, which is a community set up to be a form of utopia for its inhabitants. Founded on Shaker values of order, regulation and uniformity, it was designed to be ‘a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world’. Up until the 1960s, this patch of heaven was reserved for a white community; afterwards it became inclusive, although still essentially a symbol for white privilege, and this comes across effectively as a theme in this novel.

The plot centres around two families; the Richardsons, a large, affluent family, and the Warrens. Elena Richardson, a journalist, philanthropically places the Warrens, Mia and her daughter, Pearl, in her small downtown rental apartment block. There are glaring differences in these families’ outlooks, incomes and attitudes, yet the children of both families intertwine so much, that the lines between them all become quickly blurred. Little fires are lit.

The imagery of little fires is intelligently spread through the text. It’s like the butterfly effect, where the butterfly slowly flaps wings of smouldering embers, throwing sparks out along with the ripples. Some sparks will fade away to nothing, either mercifully or tragically. Others may form flames which can be carefully controlled, regulated and passed on like an Olympic torch. Some could burn down the world.

Above all else though, this is a novel predominantly about motherhood. Is it a bond forged by blood, or love, or both? Who is deserving of being a mother; are there rules to be followed, and who sets them? Clearly, there are going to be no simple answers, and all the central characters, as in life, are getting it simultaneously right and wrong.

I should have read this faster than I did; it’s certainly absorbing enough, but I had to take a day out. Around halfway through, I suddenly felt as though I had been seized and had a mirror slammed in front of my face, forcing me to confront myself as a person, and particularly as a mother. I felt I had to try to understand which little fires of my own I may have set, both in my triumphs as a mum, and in my many failures. You hope to ignite flames of passion, so that your children become everything that they want and to achieve what they can. But what harm do you do along the way? Have I, during the course of my 40 years on the planet, set fires which have harmed other people, however inadvertently or ignorantly? During the day in which I couldn’t read any more, I was caught up in this reflection, and atypically for me, I cried my heart out.

Such can be the power of a book. I hope I’ve learned something.

I did find that in the earlier stages of the book, I formed opinions about the characters, which unravelled completely in later chapters. There is no good or bad here, just a mass of grey areas. It’s fairly rare to feel the rush of empathy that I did for all of them. They were living, breathing entities for me, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this book. It did, and will affect me for a while yet.

I haven’t read ‘Everything I Never Told You, the author’s first novel, but I will be looking for it in the near future. I really do recommend ‘Little Fires Everywhere’, but readers should be aware for the potential for it to take its emotional pound of flesh. Not just if you are a reflective type like me, but because it tackles difficult themes; motherhood, ethics, displacement and loss.

And if you like a cozy read with a happy ending, this one might not be for you!