Why did I care about Malorie so much?
That question’s haunted me ever since I put Bird Box down.
I’ve read many post-apocalyptic novels. Some of them had characters I loved and rooted for. Some had characters I despised but through whom I experienced vicariously the darkest sides of human nature. And the worlds they struggled through to survive, though they blur now, were compelling then. Sure, the Flu-ravaged world of The Stand kept me up late into the night; The Road saw me pulling for Father and Son to survive frigid hellscapes en route to the sea.
I’m not one for hyperbole or sentimentality, but Malorie had flesh in all 250-something pages–skin in the game, as they say.
Her heart’s desires, her sole-purpose of protecting Boy and Girl, and getting them to a vague sanctuary posited and promised them by a voicemail. Rick. A voicemail from a man named Rick urged her to strive out into a world of horrors, down twenty miles of a Michigan river, so that after four years void of hope, Malorie and Boy and Girl could find some: hope. Written in present-tense, in a tight third-person point-of-view, I felt this urgency–Malorie’s–on every single line.
Maybe I loved her because of the depths she went to in order to protect Boy and Girl, one her child, one not.
You see, in the world Malerman’s created, survivors must go outside blindfolded. Some unknown form of creature, when seen, cause the person to go mad, killing themselves and/or others. It happened to many millions, including Malorie’s parents and sister. During her pregnancy, one of her more cynical housemates offers a solution. Take some chemicals, he says, and blind the newborns as soon as they exit the birth canal. That way, they’ll never be at risk of seeing the creatures to begin with.
The majority of the gore that results from one seeing these creatures is conducted off stage, implied (the death of Malorie’s parents, for example), or glossed over with narrative summary via the media discussing the horrors out there. Bird Box is wonderful and claustrophobic in that way–the point of view is so limited that your imagination is required to engage the broader implications. However, Malerman gives us one scene of true horror that involves a child. A dead one. A scene done with quiet mastery. And, not in Malorie’s point of view, serves as a counterpoint to what Malorie’s relationship with Boy and Girl is.
The boy in his Sunday’s best, propped against the headboard in his room, dead from starvation, the rot from his corpse permeating the house.
That image delivered in two sentences by Malerman, walloped an entire universe of heartache for me. Just picture the terror the boy would’ve felt after his parents died. There he is, scared of the boogeyman outside, and waiting for someone to provide him food and guidance. Neither would come. This was one of the most powerful moments I’ve come across in recent fiction.
Malerman providing a concrete example of a child suffering and dying in this world, located mid-book, gives context and gravitas to all of the struggles we’ve seen Malorie undergo to care for and raise Boy and Girl. She raised them well enough to survive to the age of four. Her training them to wake with their eyes closed, or to having almost superhuman powers of hearing, become elevated from cool to read about, to visceral maternal love.
Through thoughts and actions of hers, we learn that Malorie would do anything for these two children. What tugged at my heartstrings for the duration of the novel, though, is Malorie’s terse dialogue–by which we sense that she is keeping the children at arm’s length, in case any members of this survival trio die, the anguish wouldn’t overwhelm her.
Death seems inevitable. What are the odds that a young child, well-trained as Boy and Girl are, won’t take off their blindfolds, or curious to finally see the sun hanging in the sky, peer out a window?
Malorie barks at them.
“Girl, don’t talk. Listen.”
“What do the two of you hear? Listen!”
The word listen comes to symbolize an external survival mechanism for Malorie. She needs Boy and Girl in many ways. Using their trained sense of hearing for survival on the river happens to be the most immediate. Barking orders at them, keeping them on their toes, is her way of keeping the terror she feels from coursing through their small minds. In short, her gruffness is sublime.
Every page of Bird Box feels immediate, each of Malorie’s two complimentary storylines speeding onward in present tense.
So why do I love Malorie so much?
Because she embodies the wild all-encompassing love of mothers in the trenches–the human mother bear ripping someone to shreds to protect her cubs. Again, I never considered myself a sentimentalist. However, I think Josh Malerman did something in Bird Box that I’ve seen few writers able to accomplish. Frankly, I’ve seen few brave enough to try and risk failing.
He took the concept of unconditional love, more or less a weakened cliche of an idea, and gave it emotional truth. I love Malorie because she embodies, in sharp contrast to the darkness and blindness around her, the brightest and clearest example of the pinnacles of human nature.
Love. Unconditional love.